How Comfortable Are You With Discomfort?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book lately. It’s called The Upside To Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your Good Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment. No, I’m not talking Darth Vader dark side here, but the book really tackles this idea that we have in western society about fake it till you make it and just put on a happy face. Or… and I’m guilty of this sometimes as well… reminding people to be grateful for what they have.

While I do believe in gratitude as a practice, I’m also someone that’s dealt with depression, loss, parental divorce, fat shaming, and so on. Whether you’ve had it easier or harder, it doesn’t matter, we’ve all had our own versions of tough times, and this book argues that by embracing and engaging in those tough times, we can actually be – drum roll – happier.

Here’s the main thing I want to take on today (mainly because I’m only partway through the book). I want to talk about our discomfort with comfort.

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In Western society we are SO incredibly comfortable. Yes, there are those living in poverty and in severe circumstance, but for the most part, many of us are more concerned with our creature comforts than we were 50 years ago and we’re far more concerned with these comforts than other parts of the world.

Think about it. Our cars are now being designed with TVs to occupy kids, with individual butt warmers, air conditioning and more. I remember growing up with my Mom’s VW beetle from the 70s that had ZERO air conditioning, hard seats and you had to crank open that window by hand. The hardship!

Think of the convenience that we’re now used to. If you have to wait more than a couple of minutes for your drink at Starbucks, you get antsy. Even then, those 1-2 minutes that you’re waiting, you’re more than likely to be scrolling through apps on your phone because we’re so uncomfortable with silence, or our time not being occupied.

And finally, it hit home for me the other day when I was walking to the bus. Every single time I go anywhere, I am listening to something: podcasts, audiobooks, music, etc. I’ve gotten so accustomed to being entertained and having my time filled that the idea of going for a walk without that distraction is uncomfortable or it feels unproductive.

Here’s the deal – science tells us that the more comfortable you are, the less happy you are.

Seems counter intuitive, right? But think about it – if you are used to everything being comfortable or going a certain way, when it doesn’t you get antsy, anxious or even angry. It immediately affects our mood.

I noticed this especially when travelling throughout Southeast Asia. While trekking in the rice terraces of Sapa, Vietnam, my husband and I employed a local guide and we stayed with her family on the side of a mountain overnight. When I say side of a mountain, I mean SIDE OF A MOUNTAIN.

I asked her many questions over the two days, but there were two questions and answers in particular that blew my mind.

First, it’s important to know that our guide had three children. And I asked her, “Pen, when you gave birth to your children… what did you do? Did you have to get a motorbike to the hospital?” She nearly laughed. She said, “no, I felt a little pain, so I went to the nearest neighbour, had my baby, then walked home.” And remember, this is no simple walk, but a serious uphill hike… and she likely wouldn’t have had stitches even. If you’ve given birth vaginally before… you can relate to why I’m so freaked out by this concept!

The simple things. Pen’s daughter and I play by rolling a tire back and forth.

Secondly, I asked, “Pen, what do you do for fun?” I had to actually explain what the word hobby meant. Fun fact for the really unaware young woman that I was – fun is a privilege. Hobbies are for those that have time and some money. Living in a third world country, Pen had neither of those things. She guided during the day, and at night they cooked meals and cared for their children. Food was cooked over a stove, your teeth were brushed in the water that they’d diverted from a stream, and you slept under heavy blankets and straw mats to keep out the cold.

Time for writing, jogging, painting, or bowling? Not a thing.

I left there feeling so grateful for the opportunities that I have, but I also realize that I was so uncomfortable with the idea of not having my creature comforts and privileges. I was excited to be back to running water and a flushing toilet.

And yet… those kids were so happy. Her in-laws were so jovial, even though we didn’t speak the same language. They all loved one another deeply. They weren’t deterred by the lack of creature comforts because they it was their normal. And they were happy.

I’m not suggesting that you sell all your belongings and move to a home without running water or electricity, but what I am saying is that we should take stock of how comfort and discomfort affect our mood. Can you experiment with discomfort?

In order to try this for myself, I actually went for a thirty minute walk WITHOUT my headphones. No music, no podcasts, no audiobooks, no companion. Just me and my thoughts.
And you know what?

It was great. I was more conscious of the smells of the damp winter grass. I could hear the birds chirping and the branches swaying in the breeze. My baby girl kicked me in my belly and as opposed to when she’d do that while I was watching Netflix… I noticed. And I smiled.

Again, I’m not suggesting that you make your life difficult, but I would encourage you to play outside of your comfort zone and experiment.

Who knows, it just might make you a happier human being.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?

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