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What We Gain by Being Uncomfortable

Can discomfort help us learn more? Here is what the research says.

Key points

  • Embracing feelings of discomfort can lead to more motivation, growth, and wellbeing.
  • Embracing discomfort makes one more likely to be motivated to learn about opposing views.
  • Those who embrace discomfort are more likely to take creative risks in problem-solving and find meaning in difficulty, according to research.
Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash

My ukulele is red. So right there, I stood out.

But in the class of 32 people squished into a warm community college classroom on Wednesday evenings in the summer, I also stood out for my quality of play. And not in a good way.

Every time I walked through the classroom doors my hands got clammy. I would shake or lock up. I had butterflies.

Yet, I went every week. And every week, I left feeling bubbly and satisfied. Not only had I managed my anxiety, but I was learning and improving. The whole process felt exhilarating after the class had ended for the week. That kept me going.

Even today, years later, it is an experience I think of often because I was afraid. Every single week, I was afraid I’d embarrass myself or be unable to keep up. Yet, I made every class and grew—as a ukulele player sure, but most importantly, as a person.

We all have things that push us to our limits. Sometimes we back away. Stay in our comfort zones.

But when we are brave enough to take the ukulele class or embrace something else that feels uncomfortable or challenges us, we grow and get better.

We also create opportunities to meet new people, unlock experiences, have fun, and learn things we wouldn't otherwise know if we stayed on the sidelines of life.

Do We Need to Push Limits to Be Happy?

Over the last couple of COVID years, when we’ve all been standing at the borders of uncertainty, discomfort, and stress, I began to doubt the importance of pushing further out of my comfort zone.

Life is already uncomfortable. Is it ever too much?

It all depends on how you think of it.

If we embrace discomfort rather than thinking of it as a problem, we do better, according to the conclusions of several studies led by Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago.

Often, we approach the uncertainty of new experiences or challenges with doubt, fear, and anxiety. We fear that we cannot play Blowing in the Wind on the ukulele, so we refuse to try.

But, if we view that stress and discomfort as part of our learning process and a growth opportunity, then we will experience more positive emotions, such as greater motivation, growth, and wellbeing, according to the research.

Doing the difficult or unfamiliar challenges us to manage our feelings of discomfort, and when we do, we benefit.

In the research, 2,163 adults participated in different activities including improv classes, expressive journaling, and reading about volatile issues such as politics and the pandemic.

People who were encouraged to embrace the discomfort they felt in those situations were more engaged, motivated, persistent, and more open to important information, even when it was hard to hear.

Those study participants were also able to associate new meanings to the discomfort they felt, even before they faced the difficult experiences.

Instead of being something we have to fear or turn away from, we can view our discomfort as an opportunity.

But playing the ukulele is low stakes. It doesn’t have the emotional resonance or stress associated with bigger issues like living through a pandemic, gun rights, political upheaval, and other polarizing issues that we face on a daily basis.

Does it help to seek and embrace our discomfort as a means of helping ourselves get through the more pressing situations? Or is better to play it safe?

Reframing Discomfort as Something Positive

People who embrace this level of discomfort do better even during the biggest challenges. They are more likely to take creative risks that can aid in problem-solving and find meaning in difficulty, according to research. Those who learned to embrace discomfort also felt a greater sense of achievement when the experience was over.

And when we can welcome even uncomfortable knowledge, we are more open and motivated to learn about opposing viewpoints.

“When seeking discomfort, people spontaneously reappraise discomfort as a positive cue, even when not explicitly prompted to do so,” the researchers wrote. “Perceiving negative experiences as a sign of progress is particularly motivating when positive experiences are delayed and discomfort is immediate.”

It isn't easy, but we get a lifetime of practice learning to cope with discomfort because whether we step into it or not, life always throws up challenges.

I like the idea that we can embrace them and use them to propel us. Even if we crash and burn, we are growing. And in the end, that discomfort turns into good feelings of achievement. Satisfaction. Resilience.

There is comfort in knowing that.