One Reason Why You May Be Experiencing More Pain Than Normal

Luccia Macchia discusses her new research connecting physical pain to the state of the economy.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 7, 2021

A new paper published in Social Science and Medicine finds a surprising connection between physical pain and the state of the economy. According to the researchers, the level of pain experienced by people in a society mirrors the trajectory of the unemployment rate — and that upticks in physical pain during an economic downturn affect women more than men.

I recently spoke with Lucia Macchia, the lead author of the paper, to discuss this research in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of physical pain and the state of the economy and what did you find?

Since I started my Ph.D. back in 2015, I have been interested in the link between people's well-being and macroeconomic circumstances, such as unemployment and inflation. After conversations with my collaborator, I became interested in physical pain as I started to view it as an indicator of ill-being which complements my work on well-being. In our paper, we found that physical pain is lower in an economic boom and greater in an economic recession. This means that physical pain is high when the unemployment rate is high. We also found that this phenomenon is present mostly in rich countries and that it is experienced mainly by women.

Why do you think women are at a greater risk of experiencing physical pain during tough economic times?

During tough economic times, women are more likely to be in charge of financial-related tasks. Previous research documented that being responsible for financial tasks during economic recessions is linked to emotional stress which can be translated into greater physical pain. Other possibilities involve the increase in domestic violence and the fact that women are more likely to be responsible for the planning of the household overall (not only financial tasks). This may be harder during tough economic times, increasing stress, anxiety, and physical pain.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research showing a strong link between employment and life satisfaction?

The current research on physical pain and unemployment is strongly connected to the research on employment and life satisfaction. If we consider that life satisfaction is a measure of well-being and physical pain a measure of ill-being, we can think that the findings that show that physical pain increases when the unemployment rate is high complement the findings that show that life satisfaction increases when the level of employment is high. The research on life satisfaction and the research on physical pain can be seen as two different approaches to explore the same situation.

What insight does your work hold for individuals looking for ways to find more happiness in their own lives?

Based on my research, I believe that being generous and caring about others, having a strong social network, and having a job that brings us purpose and motivation are key factors that could help us to increase our happiness.

Should nations be tracking a "pain index," similar to how they track GDP or consumer sentiment?

Tracking a "pain index" could be a good idea as it will help governments to follow citizens' ill-being. This could inform policymakers to design policies that help to improve people's overall quality of life, the healthcare system, and job-related policies. However, I believe that this area of research is relatively new to know about what a "pain index" could look like. Including items that track people's physical pain into a general well-being index could be another option. Future research should continue exploring this topic and these possibilities.

Where do you hope to see this research go in the future? Do you have plans for follow-up studies?

I would love to see this area of research evolve as I believe it is extremely important. Future studies could examine the link between psychological processes and physical pain, the psychological determinants of physical pain, and the possibility of including a "pain index" in the policy agenda. Currently, I am exploring whether physical pain is affected by events in early life and family circumstances during childhood.