I was getting my hair cut the other day and the woman cleaning up my fade mentioned that she hated the smell of cigarette smoke. Unashamed, I admitted that I love it. I smoked a bit in high school and college, and every once in a while I get a fleeting urge to buy a pack. I am an alcoholic in recovery, and when I was newly sober I fought with everything in my body to not start smoking. Thankfully, I had the sense to know the last thing I needed was another addiction to feed, spend money on, fight, or die of. But I still find the smell of it comforting. I also like the smell of skunk, and I like to look at and sniff gross stuff.
I just thought I was weird—okay, maybe I am—but it turns out I am a benign masochist, and I am not alone.
Benign masochism, as described in a report called Glad to be sad, and other examples of benign masochism, is when we enjoy our body and mind’s negative reactions while knowing we are safe. The mind over matter factor is exhilarating. When we experience feelings like fear, anticipation, disgust, sadness, and pain in controlled, non-threatening ways, we love them.
Led by psychologist Paul Rozin, a team of doctors found many people who described finding pleasure in what most would consider adverse activities. This is called a hedonic reversal. The enjoyment of a scary movie or haunted house, for example, is a hedonic reversal. Why would we choose to sit in a dark theater or even the comfort of our own home and allow our sense of safety to be jeopardized? Who wants goosebumps, heart palpitations, and a nervous stomach?
Well, many people do. And it has to do with how our body reacts to fear. When we perceive a threat, our brain and body tell us to fight, flee, or freeze. This comes with a rush of chemicals, not unlike an opioid high. Adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine flood our body and we feel a sense of euphoria. When we don’t need to use this rush to escape or avoid actual danger, we are allowed to relish in the satisfying relief of safety.
Another type of benign masochism is when we enjoy sad experiences, such as people willingly put themselves through sadness using movies, books, or songs. People enjoy crying because it is a form of self-soothing. When tears are released so are endorphins and oxytocin. Emotional tears (versus eyes watering from irritants) contain higher levels of stress hormones so crying out of sadness actually makes us feel better. Choosing to watch or read something sad gives us the benefit of feeling good without the actual burden of the situation. We are safe. What made us cry is not really ours to hold or process in a way that could negatively affect us.
A massage that hurts so good, a challenging workout, or the heat of spicy food are all examples of benign masochism. We enjoy these uncomfortable experiences because they are all “safe threats.” Dr. Rozin told National Geographic, “A roller coaster is the best example. You are in fact fine and you know it, but your body doesn’t, and that’s the pleasure.”
But why do we also willingly allow ourselves to be Bean Boozled with Jelly Belly’s weird and gross flavored jelly beans? Or challenge each other to sip disgusting alcohol or taste Gross Gus’s variety pack of soda that contains Pirate Piss Banana and Dinosaur Dung Chocolate? Why do we watch pimple popping videos or sniff something someone tells us smells awful?
Yup, benign masochism. The thrill of the unknown, the observation of something so appalling that we can’t take our eyes off of it, and the taste of something that is disgusting but won’t kill us are what draw us to torture ourselves in safe ways. But a disgust researcher, Valerie Curtis, explains that disgust is good. It serves a purpose and experiencing disgust in safe ways helps us avoid real and dangerous disgusting things that can kill us, like disease, racism, and misogyny. People’s levels of disgust vary, but ideally if we are all grossed out by germs and poor hygiene or one race killing another because of skin color, then we tend to stay healthier and evolve as a society. Disgust protects us.
The National Geographic article which cited Rozin’s paper also mentioned people’s desire to get a whiff of a corpse flower. The flower only blooms once in ten years, and when it does, it only lasts 8-12 hours, but it smells like a dead body. People line up to experience this. Curtis explains this is because of our emotional need to understand something without it really happening. “We are motivated to find out what a corpse smells like and see how we’d react if we met one.”
Honestly, most of us would take a selfie with it. Okay, maybe not most of us. But if you are a benign masochist, then watching movies with scary dead people or smelling something that could be dying flesh is totally your thing. Enjoy, friends. We’re all a little weird.
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