Have you ever heard of benign masochism and contrast theory?
Benign BJJ Masochism
I’m still hooked on a fantasy book, but I’m easing my way back into a non-fiction book. Instead of trying to read several non-related non-fiction works, I will try and read one at a time and allow myself to digest one topic at a time. Too many non-fiction at once can cancel themselves out and I don’t retain much of the info.
I’ve picked up a new non-fiction book called The Sweet Spot by Paul Bloom. “The Sweet Spot shows how the right kind of suffering sets the stage for enhanced pleasure. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and help us transcend the self.” (source)
I’ve recently been thinking – why do I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? I mean, you could say that since I wrestled for six years during middle school and high school, that I have an interest in grappling sports. And I do enjoy watching MMA PPVs (streaming online, never pay for them heh). But why now? Why did I join jiu jitsu at the age of 36? I do eat well more often then not and I workout but not as much as I should. I also quit drinking and smoking pot. All of those keep me in decent shape. But I’m not as flexible as I used to be. I’m not as fast as I used to be. In general, I’m not nearly as athletic as I used to be.
I’m a white belt to the max. I started training BJJ last October 2021, I’ve had a few injuries that took me out for a few weeks, and was off for almost a month because of the stupid shutdowns/lockdowns in the city. We open back up next Monday, finally. That means the BJJ gym is opening back up and I get to roll around with strangers and try not to get choked out or have a limb broken. So why the heck would anyone want to do Brazilian jiu jitsu?
After reading a few chapters of The Sweet Spot, I thought perhaps me doing BJJ was a form of ‘benign masochism.’ Which is a term coined by Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul Rozin. The term benign masochism, “[…] refers to certain types of voluntary pain and suffering, most of which don’t have anything to do with sex.” (The Sweet Spot, by Paul Bloom). Could that be why I like rolling?
But the very next paragraph it says, “It doesn’t include activities that can damage one’s body or cause severe pain—it’s benign, after all. Getting yourself crucified, as some of the faithful do in the Philippines during Easter, is not benign masochism. The pleasure and pain of saunas is usually a good example of benign masochism” and “Rather, benign masochism refers to the choice to pursue activities that are normally painful or unpleasant but not harmful. We sniff with curiosity at food we know to be rotten, touch a sore tooth gingerly with our tongue, press down on a sprained ankle. We watch movies that make us cower and cry. We eat spicy food and immerse ourselves in hot baths.”
So is BJJ a form of benign masochism? People certainly do pursue BJJ which is an activity that is normally painful and definitely at times unpleasant. But it can result in harm. For example, I bruised my ribs one week and another week tore a muscle in my pelvis – both very painful. Maybe it’s something like benign masochism, but not exactly like it. For example, like any combat or grappling sport – or any sport for that matter – people put themselves through physical pain while training, but feel great after they train. And the training adds to their overall well-being. So what the heck is going on?
“Part of the story of benign masochism, then, is that we sometimes play with pain in order to maximize the contrast with future experience, so as to generate future pleasure.” and “Sometimes the contrast that enhances pleasure comes from the comparison with an actual past experience, and sometimes it’s from the contrast with expectations […]”
Maybe one reason I put myself through jiu jitsu training, is that the positive aspects that come from training – fitness, cardio, confidence – outweigh the negative aspects of BJJ – pain and harm. Perhaps I put myself through potential pain and possible harm in order to generate future pleasure. For example, when I am driving home after jiu jitsu, even though I am tired and exhausted, I feel like I have more energy overall. I get excited and want to share my experience with others (like tweeting about all the time). And when I have a shower when I get home, the hot water runs over my mat burns and it stings a lot. But it reminds me of the hard work I put in that night at the BJJ gym. When it comes to the comparison aspect of the Contrast Theory, maybe I’m comparing my experience to a past experience of not doing BJJ and not having anything challenging in my life. Woah that feels more introspective after writing it than I was expecting. Maybe in some way I wanted to shake things up in my life?
Understanding Your Self
“Why would you ever want to escape from your self? Well, as [social psychologist] Baumeister points out, self-awareness carries a burden. In everyday life, you need to make decisions that you’re responsible for, often disappointing others. You need to put a good face forward to the world; you have to manage your desires and deal with disappointment and guilt and shame. You’re stuck with your memories, your worries about the future, and your anxieties about the immediate present. You are left with that same internal monologue, maybe a bit whiny, that you have had for a very long time.”
Before looking into BJJ, I got engaged to my fiancé, and was heading back to work in September 2021 after a summer of not working very much which sucked and I don’t ever want to do again. Now I’m happy to be working and making money and I am excited to get married this summer. But at the end of last summer, I guess something was missing. It turned out that I needed to physically challenge myself in some way. The lockdowns due to the pandemic didn’t help at all either. I needed to be around people. And what better way to do that than roll around on a mat with a stranger and sweat all over them while trying to inflict pain on each other?
I had so much fun when I used to wrestle. The active life, the friendships, the results from hard work – and many more positive things I cannot recall – made my wrestling experience something I sometimes still think about. Nostalgia is another reason I joined BJJ. Again, I had such a great experience in my youth with wrestling, that I wanted to recreate the feelings of triumph and team camaraderie that I enjoyed so much. But nostalgia is a double-edged sword. I read that nostalgia seems to also be a way to counter the effects of loneliness. However, it depends because in some instances, it can increase the level of loneliness someone feels if they are already quite lonely. Nostalgia makes us feel comfortable, until it doesn’t.
I guess one thing I can say for certain, is that people pursue BJJ for many reasons. Those reasons could be to learn self-defence, to get or stay active, to challenge themselves, to meet knew people (BJJ is great for that), and of course to put themselves through pain to get pleasure. It could be some of those reasons or all of them.
These days I cannot stop thinking about jiu jitsu. I have so much fun I think everyone should at least give it a try. Again, I’m the whitest of white belts, but I hope I stick with it for as long as I can.
I’m not sure if BJJ falls under the category of an activity that is benign masochism. I don’t completely understand Contrast Theory. And I’m still trying to figure out if nostalgia is the main reason I got back in to a grappling sport. But I do know I’m on to something and I’m on the right track to figuring out why I joined a Brazilian jiu jitsu gym.
I’m glad I wrote this post, it’s helping me parse through my thoughts about why I am doing jiu jitsu.
Why did you join? Or if you haven’t, why not?
(photo is of me in the change-room before BJJ class started. I like getting there early so I can mind-prep before we get ‘er going.)