Your Comfort Zone: Should You Just Stay in It?

Embrace your limitations, says Meghan Daum in "The Unspeakable"

Posted Jan 05, 2015

Transcend your comfort zone! It is advice that sounds so wise and so very true. You've probably heard some version of it over and over again. It is very American to want do more and become more, perhaps especially if it takes a bit of discomfort to get there.

            But what if that advice is just plain wrong? That's the tasty possibility Meghan Daum offers up in "On Not Being a Foodie," a chapter in her terrific new book, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. Treat yourself to the whole thing, if you are so inclined, because here I'm going to present just a few snippets of her argument:

"…I'm convinced that, when handled responsibly, the comfort zone can be as useful and productive as a well-oiled industrial zone. I am convinced that excellence comes not from overcoming limitations but from embracing them.

"…The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone. Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you're good at something, do it a lot. If you're bad at something, just don't do it. If you can't cook and refuse to learn, don't beat yourself up about it. Celebrate it. Be the best noncook you can be. When asked to bring a side dish to a dinner party, go to the supermarket and get the nicest prepared dish you can afford."

When I read that, I thought to myself, "Oh, wow, thank you." And not because of the cooking part. (I love to cook.) At this time in my life, plumbing the depths of my comfort zone, doing things I love to do as often and as well as I possibly can (and skipping the stuff I hate), sounds just right.

I say "at this time in my life" because I'm not so sure it is the best advice for the youngest adults, many of whom are still figuring out what they like and dislike and who they really are. It is different for people who are middle-aged and especially those who are older than that. Have you heard about the research claiming that happiness increases in later life? If those claims are accurate, I bet that part of the explanation is that older people are more inclined to embrace their comfort zones. They let themselves off the hook and don't keep pushing themselves to do things they already know they don't enjoy.

There is a special twist to the wisdom of embracing your comfort zone for people who are single at heart. Usually, past a certain age, knowing what you like and what feels comfortable to you is the easy part. But in a matrimaniacal society like ours, so preoccupied with marriage and couplings and weddings, and so saturated with the assumption that of course everyone wants to be married, realizing that staying single is what suits you can be the hard part.

I still get personal letters and emails from people who read Singled Out (and later, my other writings such as these blog posts) and they cover lots of themes, but by far, the most common one is this: Readers tell me that single life has long had an appeal to them, but they never realized that was okay. They thought there must be something wrong with them. Some went to therapists to figure out what that was and get treated. It was a real revelation to learn that what felt comfortable to them was a totally fine way to live. More than that, single life might be, for them, the most meaningful and authentic way to live.

On another topic:

The second annual U.S. National Singles Day takes place on the afternoon of January 11, 2015, at The Horn Restaurant & Bar, on 8893 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90060. For more information, the US National Singles Day website is here and the Facebook page is here. I also wrote about it in more detail here.

[Notes. I wrote about another wonderful chapter from Unspeakable in this previous blog post. Meghan Daum's website is here if you want to learn more about her writings. I recommend them with what, for me, is the highest praise possible: They make you think.]

Teaser image is from Google images labeled for reuse: comfort zone logo by crispinlefay. The image to the left is obviously the cover of Daum's book.