Humans have an evolutionary need to be challenged—to feel discomfort.
That’s the main revelation of journalist Michael Easter’s The Comfort Crisis, a book about embracing discomfort to “reclaim your wild, happy, healthy self.”
Through his research, Easter discovered that living outside of our comfort zone is good for us, dramatically improving both our health and happiness. We may not enjoy whatever discomfort we expose ourselves to in the moment—be it a physical, mental, or spiritual hardship—but doing so is key to personal growth and even just plain contentment.
However, if we’re to take that first step outside of our comfort zone, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And we can’t do that unless we master the internal triggers that tend to make us run back to the safety of comfort.
Too Much Comfort Is Bad for You
Compared to ages past, today’s world is a bona fide utopia for most people in the industrialized world. Everything we need, and much we don’t, is at our fingertips: food, soft beds, temperature-controlled shelter. We live in stark contrast to how our ancestors lived for thousands of years, enduring in extreme conditions and hunting and gathering just enough food to survive.
Those thousands of years of struggle imbued us with evolutionary traits that helped us to survive then—but, as Easter argues, make us ill-suited for the world of comfort that’s come to be over the past 100 years.
As I write in my book Indistractable, humans are wired to escape pain and thus seek comfort. Throughout human history, this trait helped us to survive, pushing us to escape cold, stress, and hunger by constantly pursuing warmth, safety, and food.
Yet our instinct to default to comfort works against us in a largely comfortable world, Easter points out. It causes us to miss out on profound human experiences.
We need to now seek discomfort to find the right balance.
When helicopter parenting started in the 1990s, it marked the beginning of not letting children outside to play unsupervised. They could get hurt! Or kidnapped! But studies show that helicopter parenting induces anxiety in kids and makes them more prone to anxiety and depression as adults. Children need the essential psychological nutrient of autonomy—to learn how to play with others without an adult moderating, for example—to acclimate to operating outside the comfort zone of their parents’ watchful eye.
Another reason humans aren’t fit for routine comfort: We get bored. An evolutionary characteristic called hedonic adaptation makes humans adjust and adapt to any situation, so we have to always look out for new things to be satisfied. We grow discontented with the same old, same old.
The Comfort Crisis notes a similar human tendency, called “prevalence-induced concept change,” a term coined by David Levari, psychologist at Harvard University. Conducting a series of studies, Levari found that instead of becoming more satisfied as we experience fewer problems, we lower our threshold for what we consider a problem. We end up with the same number of troubles. Basically, we search for and see problems even when there are none.
A Little Discomfort Goes a Long Way
The Comfort Crisis is all about pushing yourself to reach your full potential, to become the person you want to be. Setting goals and challenges for yourself is a form of traction, an action that moves us toward what we want.
Discomfort, then, is good for you—but not too much.
Easter talked with Mark Seery, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo, who conducted a 2,500-person study to explore “toughening,” the theory that too much stress and negativity is harmful, but a little is beneficial. And Seery found that dealing with adversity not only increases our tolerance for it but also improves our perspective on it.
Those in the study who had faced adversity reported higher life satisfaction and fewer psychological and physical symptoms compared to those who’d spent their life sheltered. They also had a more optimistic outlook on obstacles, viewing them as “an exciting opportunity” rather than with dread.
In his experience as the NBA’s top exercise scientist, Dr. Marcus Elliott has also seen that challenging ourselves improves our perspective on failure. “Engaging in an environment where there’s a high probability of failure, even if you execute perfectly, has huge ramifications for helping you lose a fear of failing…and showing you what your potential is,” he told Easter.
And studies show taking risks is healthy for you. The Comfort Crisis reports that certain discomforts protect us from not only physical and psychological problems—obesity, heart disease, depression—but also fundamental issues like a lack of meaning and purpose.
Don’t Let Internal Triggers Limit You
If being uncomfortable is so good for us, why is it so hard for us to leave our comfort zone? What keeps us tethered to the known so we don’t venture out into the unknown?
Internal triggers are negative feelings like boredom, sadness, stress, and self-doubt. They pop up and can prompt distraction from what we’re supposed to be doing.
If you’re attempting a new challenge—running a marathon, starting a job you don’t feel qualified for, traveling solo—those scary internal triggers are likely to be raging.
Rather than letting them derail your grand plan to live out your values and become the person you want to be, you have to master them.
How we deal with uncomfortable internal triggers determines whether we pursue healthful acts of traction or self-defeating distraction. Mastering internal triggers is the first step in learning how to step outside of your comfort zone in order to achieve your goals.
So, here are four steps you can take to disarm internal triggers as you strive to overcome your next challenge:
- Step 1: Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, homing in on the internal trigger.
- Step 2: Write down the internal trigger.
- Step 3: Explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt.
- Step 4: Beware of liminal moments.
By opening ourselves up to discomfort—and defusing the internal triggers holding us back—we can evolve into our ideal selves.
This post first appeared on NirAndFar.com.