Quantifying Human Suffering and “Everyday Suffering”

In the case of hu­mans, it seems self-ev­i­dent that suffer­ing is a con­sciously ex­pe­rienced, men­tal or psy­cholog­i­cal phe­nomenon. This makes it difficult to quan­tify, given our lack of ac­cess to other be­ings’ qualia. How­ever, the sci­ence of neu­ropsy­chol­ogy seeks to cor­re­late re­ports of sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience with quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sures of phys­iolog­i­cal (brain) ac­tivity. If the vari­able be­ing re­ported by sub­jects is the (rel­a­tive) de­gree of suffer­ing ex­pe­rienced at any mo­ment, this gives us a way to quan­tify suffer­ing by cor­re­lat­ing this vari­able with rele­vant brain-scan vari­ables.

Once quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sures are in place, differ­ent meth­ods for suffer­ing alle­vi­a­tion (e.g. med­i­ta­tion, ther­apy, psy­chother­a­peu­tic drugs) can be as­sessed for their rel­a­tive effi­cacy. This already hap­pens in clini­cal con­texts, for ex­am­ple by mea­sur­ing the effect of “Mind­ful­ness Based Stress Re­duc­tion” (MBSR) on vari­ables such as cor­ti­sol lev­els, which are re­lated to con­sciously ex­pe­rienced stress.

I’m not aware of any re­search to ex­tend suffer­ing-quan­tifi­ca­tion (and sub­se­quent alle­vi­a­tion) be­yond clini­cal set­tings and into “ev­ery­day life”. Most peo­ple will never have a clini­cal symp­tom that re­quires a psy­chother­a­peu­tic treat­ment, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be sub­ject to sig­nifi­cant amounts of suffer­ing through­out their lives. We might call that “ev­ery­day suffer­ing”.

Mea­sur­ing ev­ery­day suffer­ing, e.g. mea­sur­ing cor­ti­sol lev­els of healthy sub­jects in their day-to-day lives, might in­form op­por­tu­ni­ties to alle­vi­ate it. This is prob­a­bly already hap­pen­ing to some ex­tent. An ex­am­ple in­ter­ven­tion: given MBSR’s effi­cacy at alle­vi­at­ing stress-lev­els of those with psy­chi­a­tric di­s­or­ders, it stands to rea­son that it will alle­vi­ate the stress of healthy sub­jects. Thus, one might imag­ine a gov­ern­ment funded pro­gram to provide all cit­i­zens ac­cess to MBSR as a means of re­duc­ing cor­ti­sol/​stress lev­els and their as­so­ci­ated suffer­ing.

Alle­vi­at­ing ev­ery­day suffer­ing is akin to the “bet­ter­ment of well peo­ple” and I sim­ply want to raise the point (for dis­cus­sion) that this might be a ne­glected cause. It’s not as press­ing a challenge as miti­gat­ing the in­tense suffer­ing of cer­tain be­ings (like fac­tory-farm an­i­mals) but if large, healthy pop­u­la­tions are sub­ject to any baseline of men­tal suffer­ing, I think it’s im­por­tant that we try to mea­sure, and then work to re­duce, that baseline. Even a small re­duc­tion of that baseline in a large pop­u­la­tion would mean a sig­nifi­cant de­crease in to­tal global suffer­ing.

If any­body knows of re­search to as­sess the men­tal health of large pop­u­la­tions I would love to hear about it. Thanks, Will.