I always try to do some "life philosophy" in my ethics classes: i.e. philosophical work that engages with questions about "the meaning of life." The reader I use has a nice sample from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl discusses his situation in a Nazi concentration camp, amidst many people who had lost hope. Their lives seemed to have lost all meaning. One of Frankl's deepest questions is whether this showed that the Nazis had the power to make a person's life effectively meaningless. Frankl thinks the answer is no, and that the few examples of those who rose above the circumstances, in their charity to others, and other acts of courage (such as just the will to fight through the day), demonstrated that even those in the camp could continue to make something of their lives: they still had the capacity for choice, despite the most severe limitation of options.
Noting that suffering--to a greater or lesser degree--is an inevitability in any human life, he makes the (wild?) claim that, "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." I always ask my students what they think that means, and I must admit that I am deeply puzzled by one answer that I hear from many students, semester after semester. (I'm bringing all this up because I'm covering this excerpt tomorrow...)
This all-too-common answer is this: that suffering is meaningful because by suffering, we can better appreciate the good things in life. (So, it seems, suffering, on balance, can increase our overall happiness.) Basically, it seems to me that it's never occurred to students who give this answer what a horrible thing that would be to say to someone who survived a concentration camp, or any other terrible situation.
I recognize that this (terrible) answer is derivative of the idea that "you can't appreciate pleasure or happiness without also experiencing pain and unhappiness." I'm not, however, even sure that's true, but even if it is, the sort of suffering Frankl has in mind surely goes beyond any acquaintance we'd need with the unpleasant in order to appreciate its opposite. (And it's clearly true that, in large part, many people who survived the camps were utterly destroyed and permanently scarred by the suffering they endured: this is not a recipe for "appreciating the good things in life.")
Another mistake students seem to make is that they seem to confuse effort with suffering. They then seems to suggest that suffering can be rewarding because of the payoff at the end. But they're really talking about effort, not (the experience of) suffering. It may indeed require effort to endure unavoidable suffering, but effort can be expended on other things, too. (Does Albert Pujols suffer when he takes batting practice?)
I take it that Frankl's point is a bit more austere than the students want to recognize. As I read him, sometimes suffering is unavoidable, but if we have something to live for (or even the hope that if we make it, there will be something better to live for), then we can make the process of enduring what would otherwise seem pointless a meaningful activity or situation. That doesn't mean suffering is good. (So put your hairshirts away...) Frankl is trying to show how we can maintain our dignity, not providing a recipe for happiness.
(I end with this otherwise depressing piece because the upshot of Frankl's theory is that we have a responsibility to create (or find) meaning in our lives. And since many of us--including, I presume, those fortunate enough to go to college, etc.--aren't faced with a life of pure suffering, we owe it--both to ourselves and to those who don't have the same open range of possibilities--to make something good of our lives. Otherwise, why are we living? Maybe that's moralistic--and I don't take to moralizing in my ethics classes--but I can live with one exception on the last day...)