On Discomfort

By Herbert Ponting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Herbert Ponting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Are we too comfortable in our lives?

I recently completed one of those obstacle course races – the kind where you crawl under barbed wire, throw yourself over walls, and run through the countryside. It had been a goal of mine for some time, and I finally decided to just do it. As part of the lead-up to the event, I spent a considerable amount of time listening to the Spartan Up Podcast and one of the things they talk a lot about is getting outside of your comfort zone.

I’m also a faithful listener to Tim Ferriss’ podcast, and he also talks a lot about pushing yourself into new experiences and the benefits of discomfort.

Both of these examples remind me of stoic philosophy, the ancient Spartans, and even the sacrifices of my grandparents and what it must have taken for them to make it to this country in a time before air travel was common. This advice even reminds me of the old muscle building adage – no pain, no gain.

I’ve grown up in a modern world where the goal of most of society and business has been to make things easier for us. For some reason, I grew up watching car shows and This Old House and had an innate desire to learn to do a lot of things on my own, but I recently completed a fairly major home renovation for which I hired out most of the work. I felt guilty to have someone come into my house, when I knew I was capable of doing the work myself, even though I didn’t have the time to get it done. I also recently had a mechanic repair an oil leak for me – something I’d never trusted anyone else to do. What I’m trying to say with these examples, is that I have a strong work ethic to do things myself – but I’m also a product of our modern society and want an easy life for me and my family. I order far too much pizza, even though I know it’s not good for me.

Joe De Sena from the Spartan Up Podcast (and founder of the Spartan Race, in addition to many other things) often talks about the marshmallow study, in which kids had marshmallows (or cookies, I don’t exactly recall) placed in front of them. They could eat that cookie now, or wait a few minutes, and receive two cookies. The studies found that the kids who could wait for the extra cookie/marshmallow ended up more successful in their lives.

There are also myriad studies showing that those who eat less live longer. Fasting could be the way to a better life say some people.

I also think back to the common sense that organized religion often provides. Catholics often seem to revel in suffering, with the most devout fasting on Fridays. Muslims too have periods in their lives where they fast. I’m sure many other religions have similar rules. Did they discover that the hunger not only drives self-reflection and self-improvement, but that intermittent fasting can also be an effective way to control weight gain centuries ago?

I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being comfortable. I’m not ready to give up my Sealy for a bed made of lashed together logs anytime soon. But I do often wonder whether we should force ourselves into a cold shower a day or two a week before we get into our plush bathrobes, or if we should fast once a week to keep our weight under control. Maybe everyone should run obstacle course races just to see what they are made of and to feel some discomfort or even shame (I’m embarrassed at how much trouble I had with some of the obstacles).

There’s a debate to be made that temporary discomforts, such as these, aren’t really the types of discomforts that would have an impact on us. After all, we spent millennia sleeping in dirt and hoping the wild animals didn’t eat us at night. But I do think that it’s a good idea to remember that everything in our lives doesn’t have to be pillow-topped, heated seated, pumpkin-spiced and shiny new. Maybe it’s time to call for a national #discomfort campaign in which everyone has an opportunity to think about who they really are, what’s important to them, and why they are spending so many resources to get sheets a bit higher thread count or a car that’s just a single year newer.

What do you think?