J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: December 2010

Why We Should Seek to be Uncomfortable

Bed of nails, state fair style.

It’s intuitive and natural to seek comfort.  We want to be warm, well-fed, among friends and family, doing things we enjoy, with money in the bank.  But those moments when we are uncomfortable give our lives meaning, force us to grow, keep us healthy, and make us think.  It’s not something we consider or celebrate very often, in our culture that values ease and feeling good.

What’s separates being uncomfortable from suffering?  Duration and choice.  Being uncomfortable for too long, or being uncomfortable against our will, can translate into suffering.  There’s a huge difference between being poor for a year and poor for a lifetime, or taking a vow of poverty vs. involuntary poverty.  There’s nothing glorious or redeeming about suffering.  But choosing to be uncomfortable for brief periods of time can make us stronger, more aware, and more alive.

There are plenty of shortcuts to health, wealth, and happiness, many of which I’ve discussed on this blog.  Eat foie gras for heart healthMake the easy choices that vastly improve your quality of life.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t do the easy things that make our lives better.  But there’s a risk of elevating ease and comfort, as values, above all else.

Cold dip.

Why should we celebrate being uncomfortable, and seek it out in our own lives?  Intense physical exertion is the most obvious answer; there are a multitude of benefits to short bursts of extreme physical activity (stronger muscles, denser bones, etc.).  Cold water is another physical example; a 5 minute cold shower can stimulate circulation, encourage fat loss, strengthen our immunity, and wake us up.  But there are less obvious examples as well.  Learning something difficult is uncomfortable.  The steeper the learning curve, the less comfortable we feel.  Prolonged intense concentration can feel uncomfortable.  So can unfamiliar social situations.  Emotional introspection can be intensely uncomfortable, as can some honest, heart-to-heart conversations.  Writing a big check to a charity can hurt a little.  But often, when we choose the more difficult path, it pays off.  We get stronger, we gain new skills, we meet new people, we deepen relationships, we complete difficult tasks, and we feel better about ourselves.

This is obvious, right?  So why don’t we ever hear the message that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable? It seems to be a kind of blind spot in U.S. culture.  Our country wasn’t founded on feeling good and living an easy life, so where did the culture of ease come from?  Maybe it’s an outgrowth of post-war consumerism, the culture-shift engineered to keep the booming, hyperactive wartime economy going.

The most insidious aspect of the culture of ease (remote controls, fast food, cup-holders, minivans, instant gratification, nonstop entertainment) is that it leads to chronic understimulation.  When we’re under-challenged, we get bored and seek distraction.  If we’re constantly drawn to addictive, unproductive behaviors (drinking, over-eating, TV watching, videogames, partying, etc.), then it’s usually a sign of too much comfort (and therefore boredom) in the rest of our lives.

Climbers on Mt. Fuji, either dead or napping.

The flip side of the same coin is the subculture of extreme discomfort.  Amateurs run marathons and climb mountains, injuring (or even killing) themselves in the process.  People drink only lemonade and salt water for a week, despite the lack of evidence that such a regimen benefits health in any way.  This kind of discomfort bingeing doesn’t do anyone any good.

Small, daily doses of self-imposed discomfort do more good.  Examples?  Choosing to bike instead of drive.  Eating less.  Listening to and considering thoughtful criticism (of our work and/or behavior).  Learning a new skill, even if it hurts your brain.  Working out.  Meditating.  Giving to charity.  Sometimes (though not always) the application of moderate self-discipline feels uncomfortable.

I’m not advocating stoicism or asceticism — I appreciate my creature comforts as much as anyone else.  But the insidious glorification of ease is a real cultural phenomenon, and it’s damaging.  I think it’s one reason the United States is falling behind in terms of education (though lack of school funding is another).  It’s one reason that, as a nation, we’re fat (though government subsidies of corn, sugar, and wheat are another).  For some reason there’s a prevailing idea that Americans can’t tolerate being uncomfortable (after 9/11, when citizens were ready to make sacrifices on behalf of our nation, George W. Bush told us to shop).

We don’t need to kill ourselves to be happy, but we can benefit from resisting the corporate and cultural messages of ease being the highest value.  It’s okay to feel uncomfortable.

Three Counterintuitive Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease (and Osteoporosis, While You’re at It)

Bad for the goose, good for you.

Heart disease runs in my family, like it does in many families.  Few people are immune to the insidious accumulation of arterial plaque.  Known risk factors include smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, age, and type-2 diabetes.  Dietary factors are acknowledged, but there is no consensus regarding which dietary factors are actually risky.  The stale conventional wisdom regarding cholesterol, meat, and saturated fat being bad for your heart is rapidly giving way to a more nuanced view that considers systemic inflammation, blood sugar regulation, and calcium metabolism.  Starchy foods (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes), fructose, and other high glycemic-index foods are now viewed with more suspicion than the once-maligned rib-eye steak and scrambled eggs.  Many doctors still consider arterial hardening to be irreversible, but a new breed of cardiologists has a different view; arterial plaque can be measured, controlled, and even reversed.

What can you do to reduce your own risk of heart disease (or even reverse it if it has already progressed)?  Well, don’t listen to me — I have no medical credentials whatsoever.  But you might talk to your doctor about some of the evidence presented below.

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Creating a Personal Economic Plan

This post is a continuation of What’s Your Personal Economic Plan?

What Can You Do? What Suits Your Temperament?

Now there's a plan.

There are a few ways to make money.  There is passive income, which involves no effort beyond cashing checks.  This could be from investment income (interest and dividends), rents (if rents exceed maintenance expenses), passive ownership share in a profitable business, and royalties (from music, books, and performances).

There is the possibility of having a job, with salary and benefits.

There is freelance, or independent work, where you charge a client for services delivered (on a job, hourly, or daily basis).

There is the entrepreneurial route, starting, or gaining an ownership stake in, a profitable business.

Your spouse, significant other, or family might be willing to support you, but this can mean sacrificing a lot of economic autonomy.

There’s also crime, but in the end crime doesn’t pay.

Part of creating a strong personal economic plan is understanding your own temperament.  What are you suited for, and more importantly, what are you not suited for?  The big “traps” in my opinion are as follows:

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What's Your Personal Economic Plan?

College grads circa 1892.

I clearly remember the excitement and difficulties of my first year or two out of college.  There was one day in particular — I remember feeling things couldn’t get any worse (which, I now believe, is never true, things can always get worse, and conversely, they can always get better).  That particular day in 1993 I had no job, no car, and nowhere to live (I was staying at my mom’s place in Berkeley in a spare room).  My recently completed undergraduate degree was in Rhetoric & Communications — not exactly a fast track to a lucrative career.  My prospects were poor, and what I remember about that particular day was that two different girls dumped me.  Should I even try to explain that?  I don’t think so.  At the time it felt like icing on the cake — my cake of personal misery.

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A Multi-Modal Approach to Solving Extremely Difficult Problems — Part II

Maybe you thought we were getting something other than a cautious centrist pragmatist empiricist in the White House?

In my first post in this series I discussed the empirical, rational, and subjectivist approaches to problem solving.  The recent tax debate has highlighted these different approaches and their pitfalls.  The Democrats argue that there is no empirical evidence that tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy.  The Republicans make various “rational” arguments that cutting taxes “across the board” will lead to increased spending by everyone (the rich included), and will thus stimulate the economy.  Up in Alaska, Sarah Palin takes the extreme Subjectivist approach — a sprightly gung-ho attitude is what this country needs to get us out of the doldrums.

Obama leans towards empiricism.  What evidence do we have for taking a particular course?  What has worked in the past?  In some ways this is a thoughtful and intelligent approach to decision making.  In other ways it’s driving forwards while looking out the rear window.  Patterns that we perceive in looking at past events may or may not show up in the future.  The “empirical fool” thinks “This has happened before, so it will likely happen again.” Well, maybe.  But if the system is ruled by chaos and flux, probably not.

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A Multi-Modal Approach to Solving Extremely Difficult Problems — Part I

Plato and Aristotle ... solvin' some problems.

Most problems are easy to solve.  The solution leaps into your head the instant you understand the nature of the problem.  In the course of our day we might solve a dozen, or even a hundred smallish problems (unclogging, plugging in, restarting, mediating, debugging, delegating, etc.).  It’s one thing our giant brains evolved to excel at.

But every once in awhile we run into a real doozy — a problem so difficult or intractable that it truly stumps us.  Maybe we’re half a million in debt, with no income to speak of.  Maybe we have a chronic illness that has proven resistant to medicine and lifestyle changes.  Maybe the behavior of a client, significant other, or family member has escalated to red alarm level — they’re destroying us or themselves and they’re out of control.  Maybe we’ve invaded a country on false pretenses and now we’re stuck there and it’s costing us lives and billions of dollars.  No easy solution springs to mind.  What’s the best approach?

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