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 health. Make 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.
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.
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.