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Why Stress Is Good

Some stress helps you to live a rich, full, and meaningful life.

Source: Pexels

Imagine you would take a time-machine and travel back 20 years. It’s 1998 again, and there are no smartphones, no instant messaging, you would get your news mostly from a newspaper, and Google hasn’t even been founded yet.

How would you do?

For us older folks, we can still remember a world without the internet. Nowadays, however, the internet has grown so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine life without it.

If you doubt this claim, I invite you to go a week without any internet or smartphone access. I doubt that you will succeed with this little experiment—and even if you do it will not be long before co-workers, friends, and family are letting you know what a pain it is for them not to be able to email you, text you, follow you on Facebook, or get to you through WhatsApp.

The truth is, we have grown heavily dependent on technological advancements that have made our lives more comfortable. And this trend is far from new.

According to a longitudinal study by the University of Connecticut, people have grown increasingly accustomed to their comfort increasing. For example, whereas only 25 percent of participants felt the need for air-conditioning in their homes in 1970, that number had doubled by the mid 1990’s.

With technology on the rise, and markets trying to gain a competitive edge by providing customers with an ever-more comfortable product experience, we are bound to continue reaching new heights of comfort with each passing year.

Our idea of what constitutes luxury and the norm constantly shifts. The old luxury becomes the new norm. The old extravagance becomes the new necessity.

And frankly, this desire for more comfort has brought in a lot of technological advancements in the first place. From the creation of agriculture to the inception of—all was inspired by a desire for a more comfortable life.

And in theory, this all sounds fine, doesn’t it?

Our lives become more comfortable, and we should all be happier for it!

The reality, however, looks a lot different.

The Dangers of Comfort Addiction

Researchers Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, authors of the book “The Upside of Your Dark Side”, write “While people have historically chosen pleasure over pain, the modern era is an outlier in human history. We don’t just enjoy our creature comforts; we are addicted to them”.

We don’t just want more comfort, we need and rely on it.

Technology becomes smarter, and increasingly takes on tasks that were once exclusively reserved for humans.

For example, how many phone numbers of your friends and family do you know at the top of your head?

Chances are very few, since your smartphone takes care of this job for you.

Never again do we have to remember birthdays, because Facebook sends us a timely reminder. Never again do we have to commit a road track to memory, because modern GPS systems ensure that we will never get lost.

More and more of our mental faculties are being outsourced to computers, robbing us of the necessary experience to develop and train these skills and faculties ourselves.

But far, far more troublesome than the collective decay of our mnemonic abilities, is our growing intolerance with discomfort itself.

While we constantly redefine and narrow down what it means to be comfortable, we also widen the space in which we feel uncomfortable. In other words, the more we get used to comfort, the more we get alienated by discomfort.

As Biswas-Diener writes, “What most folks don’t realize is that this seemingly natural attraction to an easier life is rooted in avoidance of discomfort.”

And once we go down the road of avoiding discomfort, we open up a whole new bag of problems.

The Value of Discomfort

Even though discomfort—and stressors that cause discomfort—are uncomfortable per definition, they are also valuable life experiences.

In a study at the University of Berkeley, moderate stress has been shown to strengthen the connection between neuronal cells, resulting in improved attention and memory performance.

And although chronic stress can negatively affect pregnancy, a study from Johns Hopkins found that babies born to women who experienced moderate levels of stress during pregnancy had more advanced developmental skills by the age of two, compared to babies from unstressed mothers.

Furthermore, stress has been shown to boost our immune system, making us better equipped against illness and disease.

All of these studies on stress point into one direction:

There’s real-life value in stress, and we’re better advised to make use of it!

Just like we need physical stress to grow our muscles, so do we need mental stress to grow our mind.

The intellectual stress of engaging in rational discussion will improve your level of critical thinking. The creative stress of composing a piece of music will improve your sense for rhyme and rhythm. The emotional stress of having your heart broken (and being a heartbreaker) will enable you to become a wiser and better lover.

Our willingness to experience stress and discomfort is vital if we wish to improve our lives.

Ironically, the word “comfort” explains why. It means to get with your strength. “Com” is Latin for “with,” and “fort” from the Latin word “fortis,” which means “strength.”

So what helps you get with your strength? Pick from these two options: Facing and meeting positive challenges, or looking for ways to avoid any “discomfort”?

When we learn to open up to discomfort, we are getting with our strength. We are doing comfort-the-behavior. When we avoid all discomfort, even discomfort that is meaningful and useful, we build up our greatest weakness. We are doing discomfort-the-behavior and we are praying it will lead to comfort-the-feeling.

Good luck with that.

Comfort-the-behavior will often produce comfort-the-feeling—but the action of avoiding discomfort is itself an uncomfortable place to be. What it leads to over time is more discomfort.

And, ironically, making room for stress and discomfort improves our ability to experience joy and happiness. The more willing we are to feel the depths of negative emotions, the more we’re able to experience the peaks of positive emotions.

Comfort isn’t always good. Stress isn’t always bad. It’s our willingness to experience the full range of human emotions—both positive and negative—that makes our life rich, full, and meaningful.