The damaging myth of “no pain, no gain”

We are told it time and time again, but is the  “no pain, no gain” phrase hurting us more than it’s helping? 

Probably.

Let’s address the obvious before getting into it; if you want to gain muscle at the gym, it will probably hurt after the first few times you go. 

This is not a sports site, however, and this is not the application we will be discussing. 

We will be looking at it in a more general sense of the phrase – one that is more commonly believed. The one we tell ourselves when starting a business, climbing the corporate ladder, or navigating a stressful relationship.  

For some reason, many have come to believe that all things worth having require pain. It’s time to ditch this toxic mindset. 

Here are three reasons why.

1) It encourages an unhealthy (and often unproductive) work ethic

The myth of “no pain, no gain” is often echoed in workplaces, leading to a culture where overworking is not just normalized but celebrated. This mindset pushes the idea that success is directly proportional to the amount of effort and hardship endured, often at the expense of health and well-being.

Several studies have shed light on the dangers of this approach.

Research quoted by the World Economic Forum found that individuals working long hours (>55 hours per week) had a significantly higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours.

Our capacity for focused, high-quality work is limited, however. Those extra hours, which are harder on us, don’t actually result in us getting more done.  

A study by Stanford University professor John Pencavel found that productivity decreases sharply after a person works 50 hours a week, and working more than 55 hours is pointless; he found that those working up to 70 hours a week got no more work done than those who worked 55 hours. 

Where is the ‘gain’ in getting little to no more work done but risking our health to do so?

Sounds more like “more pain, more pain” to me. 

We are not designed to maintain high levels of focus for extended periods without breaks; that’s why it’s painful. The work-life imbalance that “no pain, no gain” often encourages can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and major health issues. 

Recognizing our limitations in focus and the need for rest is essential. 

2) ‘Pain’ does not equate to a happy life

What is ‘gain’ for you? 

Seriously, think about it. 

At the end of the day, most of us just want to be happy and feel fulfilled for as much time as possible. When we really break it down, most things we do are in pursuit of this.

However, the commonly held belief that enduring pain is necessary for gain is fundamentally at odds with concepts and research on what a fulfilling life is.  

The concept of Ikigai, for example, emphasizes finding joy, fulfillment, and balance in the daily routines of life and being part of a community. Ikigai is about discovering your personal purpose and living a life that is both rewarding and meaningful. 

That doesn’t sound too painful to me. 

Keep in mind that this is the lifestyle followed by some of the longest-living, happiest people among us. Surely, living a long, happy life is a ‘gain’, isn’t it?

The ancient philosopher Epicurus also proposed ideas that resonate with this concept. He believed in the avoidance of pain, not through enduring hardship, but by limiting our desires and nurturing good friendships. 

He taught that true happiness comes from appreciating the simple pleasures of life, fostering meaningful relationships, and cultivating a state of tranquility and freedom from fear. His philosophy suggests that a life of moderate, simple pleasures, achieved through intellect, friendship, and living a virtuous life, is the path to happiness.

Not convinced that enduring pain doesn’t lead to a happy life?

The longest study on happiness by Harvard Researchers concludes that good relationships are what allow us to live long, happy lives – not achievement, fame, financial success, or anything that we would typically associate with ‘pain’. 

Yes, relationships require effort and, sometimes, sacrifice – but good ones don’t tend to necessitate what most of us would consider to be ‘pain’. 

But what about work – surely succeeding at hard things makes us happier? 

It does, but research would suggest it involves less suffering than we might think. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent psychologist, wrote that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand, which, of course, could be our work. This suggests that our most productive and creative times can also be our happiest, once again challenging the notion that pain is a necessary precursor to ‘gain’.

I could go on, but I think it’s clear that the idea that pain is a requisite for a happy and successful life is flawed, at least when viewed through the lenses of some popular philosophies and recent studies. 

The next and final reason is probably the biggest one to let go of this damaging belief.

3) It can cause us to continue when we really shouldn’t

Possibly most dangerous of all the reasons on this list, the “no pain, no gain” ethos can sometimes lead us down a dangerous path of persisting in situations that are detrimental to our well-being, under the mistaken belief that enduring more will eventually lead to success. 

This misguided perseverance can be harmful, both personally and professionally.

Whether it’s in a toxic work environment, a harmful relationship, or an unfulfilling career path, the belief in enduring pain for eventual gain can blind us to the reality that not all situations are worth enduring.

There’s a fine line between perseverance and self-harm, and the “no pain, no gain” mentality can obscure it.

Sometimes, the bravest and most strategic move is to step back or walk away. This isn’t a sign of weakness or failure but rather an indication of strength and self-awareness. 

Understanding when to retreat and reassess can open new paths and opportunities better aligned with our values and goals. It’s about recognizing that our efforts and energies are better invested elsewhere.

Learning to differentiate between growth-inducing challenges and harmful situations is crucial.

Enduring pain without purpose or constructive outcome is not a testament to one’s strength; rather, it’s an unnecessary burden that hinders true progress and well-being.

The bottom line

While resilience and the ability to overcome difficulties are valuable traits, consciously enduring, or even seeking, unnecessary pain is neither beneficial nor a marker of success. 

Life will provide most of us with enough challenges and opportunities for growth without the need for us to artificially create hardship in the name of progress or achievement.

The real skill lies in discerning which pains are part of a meaningful process of growth and which are simply self-imposed barriers to our well-being. 

By stepping away from this masochistic mindset, we open ourselves up to a more balanced, fulfilling approach to life and success—one that values well-being, happiness, and genuine progress over the glorification of suffering.

Until next time. 

Picture of Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business. As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys. In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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