The road to happiness is paved with sorrow: Why we need conflict in stories, explained by neuroscience

Veronica Roth argues that “if there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.” Not only do I agree with her claim, but I would extend this argument to any experience. Games, hobbies, and even chores performed solely out of need become more rewarding when accompanied by a moderate amount of challenge — enough to capture our attention but not so much to make us quit.

Conflict works only for as long as hope exists. Unrelenting affliction will frustrate readers just as much as a never-ending rain of happiness will bore them. Conflict implies pain. However, readers must occasionally receive a spoonful of joy. Conflict’s role isn’t to punish characters or to prevent them from attaining happiness. Conflict’s role is to secure attention by making happiness elusive, by squeezing and stretching hope.

Conflict takes advantage of a principle that rules life: homeostasis, every living’s organism tendency not only toward an equilibrium that allows for the continuation of life but also toward continuous betterment.

Homeostatic processes are automatic. Most remain at a subconscious level. Under poor conditions of light, our pupils dilate. If we take a bite, we salivate, without having to think about it. However, when complex actions are required, and consciousness must intervene, emotions enter the scene.

Emotions are like small action programs prompted by an operating system whose ultimate goal is to secure and improve life.

Emotions are responses to cues from our body and the environment and the relative importance of those cues in relation to our goals. Emotions guide attention, provoke changes in our body and behavior, and, via the secretion of hormones, give rise to feelings that serve as guides for conscious action. Feelings of disgust, for instance, prevents us from eating what may cause us harm, and compassion from abandoning the defenseless. Fear compels us to flee, anger to fight back.

Within our brains, emotions hold the steering wheel. Reason’s role is to gather information, integrate it, organize it, manipulate it, and present it: Fries today or a beach body tomorrow? Memories can only warn, bringing on new emotions: Why not try the salad? Emotions decide: Because I want the fries. We don’t do what we know is best for us, but what feels best for us.

Emotions hold the wheel because emotions are fast. The brain is a predicting machine, always trying to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Like a greedy investor, the brain is always comparing the utility of a potential reward to its relative cost. The brain, however, is frugal. It favors efficiency over accuracy in its predictions. Life evolved under conditions in which only fast decisions could prevent death. By propelling action and attributing value to our choices, emotions granted life the necessary speed to make the best possible decisions in the shortest amount of time.

Were our behavior controlled solely by logic, consuming a story would be a poor investment of time and cognitive resources. Yes, we learn from stories. We make sense of life, ourselves, and others from the knowledge that we extract from narratives. However, there are more efficient ways to acquire information than consuming a work of fiction. We don’t read Les Misérables looking for lessons in kindness and compassion. We don’t watch Macbeth to learn about the perils of untamed ambition. Knowledge comes as a byproduct. We consume stories mostly because of the way they make us feel.

Consuming a story is a decision. When a story provokes feelings that indicate to us that committing the scarce resources of time and attention into consuming that story is the right choice, we remain engaged. When those feelings are absent, boredom arises, suggesting that greater rewards lie elsewhere. As a result, we disengage.

Conflict promotes narrative engagement because as social animals, we tend to bond with those in distress. Witnessing a character’s plight stirs up compassion, a concern for the welfare of the other that is also a form of love, nature’s mechanism to promote bonding and cooperation. When we feel for a character, we fall in love a little.

Hooked by compassion, finding out whether a character will or will not obtain what she desires becomes the reward that justifies our commitment of time and attention. As the story unfolds, conflict forces us to adjust our predictions of where fate will lead our heroine. These prediction adjustments are followed by a cascade of emotional responses that change our perception of whether the information we seek is worth pursuing. If we stop being sympathetic to a character’s suffering, if this suffering ends or if it causes us too much distress, we disengage.

The interest that accompanies compassion is driven by the release of dopamine, a neurochemical that promotes exploratory behavior by making potential rewards more salient and attractive. Dopamine has been associated with pleasure, but dopamine only provokes the euphoria that accompanies the anticipation of pleasure. Dopamine’s role is merely motivational, give us the extra oomph we need to obtain a reward.

Our brains release more or less dopamine depending on the amount of motivation needed after making a prediction adjustment. If we predict that a reward will be easy to obtain and the circumstances match this prediction, we release little dopamine. That’s why our interest fades when things are too easy, and stories lack conflict. If we predict that a reward is unattainable and circumstances indicate that, indeed, our efforts are futile, we release even less dopamine. That’s why we tend to abandon difficult tasks unless there is an indication of progress. However, if we suddenly acquire information that reduces uncertainty and makes what before seemed unattainable attainable, forcing us to adjust our expectations, dopaminergic neurons will start firing at full force, giving us the motivation we need to continue while, at the same time, making everything else seem less important. Sudden, impending losses have a similar effect. Our bodies know that hope should be the last thing to lose.

Now, for this mismatch between reality and expectations to rouse our interest, the unexpected events must be not only relevant to our goal—seeing the struggle of a beloved character come to an end—but also plausible. In a way, predictable. Even the craziest forms of fantasy have to make sense. Lack of realism disappoints because it renders our efforts to guess what will happen next completely useless. 

Finally, whenever we see our heroine fall into a trap, then find the clue that points to the murderer, only to discover that that murderer may be the man she loves, only to find out that he is not but that he’s leaving on a trip from which he may never return, whenever we encounter conflict, not only we grow more curious. As mentioned before, conflict gives rise to a multitude of emotional responses, inducing all kinds of feelings beyond interest: fear, joy, doubt, anger, sadness, desperation. Led by compassion, these feelings combine into a stronger homeostatic impulse, a desire to better one’s state by seeing the circumstances of a beloved character improve.

It is not about mitigating one’s pain. Love hurts, and so does feeling compassion, but love also brings the greatest happiness. We stick to a story because what we crave is that happiness.

Happiness is signaled by the release of endorphins. Endorphins are responsible for that warm glow we feel when we hug a baby, or our heroine receives the letter that she so eagerly expected. Endorphins are what produce the feelings of connectedness and elevation that we experience upon reaching a satisfactory ending. Their effect is similar to that of shooting morphine (therefore the name, “endogenous morphine”), and are just as addictive, albeit far less dangerous. In other words, what conflict does is to lay down the conditions so that our brains can get a little high, if only for a few seconds, with sheer happiness.