What’s your pain discount rate?
Poked and prodded
I love Persian accents. They’re unique and pleasant to the ear (at least for me). Hard to replicate.
I was at the doctor’s yesterday. Young guy. Friendly. Persian.
Four needles were staring back at me. Waiting patiently to fulfill their destinies.
“How do you handle these?” he asks.
“Generally you put the tube between your index and middle fingers and push the plunger with your thumb.”
I didn’t say that. “No problem,” I answered. “Been poked and prodded a bunch in the military. Only had one near pass-out out of hundreds I guess.” I still give my vasovagal nerve and intermittent fasting shit for whatever role they played in that smirch on my otherwise pretty good tough-guy record.
Usually I like to watch the average shot or blood draw as a kind of man test. I even watched my vasectomy. But this day I was supine, not just because I like that word but because laying down was part of this procedure’s SOP.
So I couldn’t see the first thin soldier coming. I felt a twinge of pain. This was no blood draw.
I continued the conversation. “Hopefully I have many more pokes behind me than ahead of me.”
Like I said, this guy was friendly, despite his notable lack of a Persian accent. “Well, actually, hopefully you have many more ahead of you.” Sometimes disagreement is the most genuine brand of friendly. “You get old, you get stuff. Gotta get that taken care of.”
I get it, doc. You’re saying that if I don’t get lots of pokes, then I died too young. But I’m thinking that if I have more behind me that that implies I’ll be super fit and healthy into old age. Maybe win a lottery ticket and evade cancer’s daily scouting patrols around my bodily territory.
But this got me thinking. How do we rate past pain vs. future pain?
First, let’s get the following out of the way: Some people have had horrific pasts, and that no doubt haunts them. That stuff does incredible damage to one’s ability to function and be happy. So I don’t wish that on anyone’s past self. If you have to endure it, maybe(?) it’s better in the future.
Okay, now for the bulk of us. People differ widely on how they regard pain over time. I suggest this has profound yet underappreciated implications for our wellbeing.
If we rate past troubles too highly, it is paralyzing. It overshadows the beauty that we experienced.
Then again, if we don’t acknowledge those hard times, aren’t we ignoring who we are? Don’t our scars in a sense make us?
Meanwhile, future pain can be terrifying, though less daunting when we’re ignorant of it (…“bliss.”)
But if we hold constant the kind of pain you would experience between the past and the future (needle sticks for instance), what do you prefer and by how much? Is next year better than 20 years from now?
As we all know, there exists what mathematicians might call a “decay” in our “pain function” over time as experiences become more distant from the present moment. Things that happened 5 years ago tend to be less powerful on average than events last year. We could chart the impact of pain on our life over time as a curve. Instead of treasury yields or our net worth, we could see how the events of our personal record tend to resonate through the amplifier of our mind.
Our curves change over time as we age. Our mathematical “weights” of different types of pain change, too (e.g. social vs. physical). And we all know how the pains of certain periods of life (e.g. high school) can be particularly powerful.
Most people tend to behave in similar ways. We are less different than we think. So most people’s pain curves probably tend to look the same.
But some people are tougher than others in the present. They have high tolerance for discomfort. Others are really effective at accepting the future without anxiety. And valuing the past in a positive way, despite the pain.
On the other hand, some people do dwell excessively on their past troubles. Many are racked by anxiety about the future.
Most of us are in the middle.
The powerful thing is that we can control our forward-looking and backward-looking discount rates! And we can also improve our ability to deal with pain in the present, too! 
Personal development works. Reading. Meditation. Reflection. Journaling. Doing hard things. Therapy for many (most?).
Through working on ourselves we can truly internalize the maxim “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
And we can appreciate that the joy in life, past, present, or future, can never be discounted.
I think there’s a mildly entertaining way to frame all of the above: a kind of Christmas Carol depiction. Y’know, “Ghost of pains past, ghost of pains future, ghost of pains present.” Ping me in the comments if this is worth a shot in a follow-up post :)
About the author: Sri hosts The Warrior Poet podcast, a show on the philosophy of leadership based on his experience in the SEAL Teams, at Harvard Business School, on Wall Street, and in tech. Shows every Monday.
All the way wet (aka the footnotes)
 “All the way wet”: Something an instructor might say to students at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training during “surf torture.”
 Let’s be honest. Most doctors are rated on their looks, demeanor, and office operations. I’d like to sponsor a study where a role-playing doctor gets all the answers wrong and recommends potential deadly treatments but uses all the right manipulation tricks to gain trust. I shudder to think how high his patient ratings would be.
There are things society “knows” but may not appreciate the degree to which the thing is true. I’m saying that “It’s all about bedside manner” is one of them.
PS. My family is chock full of medical professionals, and I don’t have malice toward MDs. I just think medicine is a noble science that suffers from routine encounters with society.
 Withstanding pain more effectively in the present has been shown to greatly reduce negative impact from our memories of the experience.