How Too Much Comfort Is Making You Miserable
The journalist Michael Easter once spent a month in the Arctic Circle, tracking a herd of caribou for a national magazine story.
After 33 days in the backcountry — lugging an 80-pound pack through forests and tundra, spending each night outdoors in a tent — Easter says that his reunion with running water almost brought him to tears.
“I was in this little bathroom at an airfield in Kotzebue, Alaska,” he recalls. “When that warm water hit my face, it was like, oh my god. I think I let it run over my hands for about 20 minutes.”
In his new book, The Comfort Crisis, Easter makes the case that modern life may be too cushy for our emotional and psychological well-being. When all of our most fundamental needs (food, warmth, safety) are so thoroughly and perpetually satisfied, he says we not only lose our appreciation for what we have but we also “move the goalposts” and fixate on social comparisons that make us miserable.
Easter is quick to point out that his book is for people with “first-world problems.” It should go without saying that there’s a vast subset of Americans for whom deprivation or difficulty are not choices but the realities of daily life. But after acknowledging those truths, he says it’s also the case that “a lot of people don’t realize how good they have it because they’ve never had it bad.”
Too often, we treat choices and luxuries as though they are obligations and necessities. “We live life like it’s a checklist,” he says. “You’ve got to go to college, get a job, get a car, get a nicer car, get a house, get married — and if you don’t, you’re a loser. But all of this is societally conditioned, and it doesn’t stop once we check off all these items.”
One of the best ways to counteract this unhelpful conditioning, he says, is to engage in activities that expose your brain and body to periods of physical discomfort. “Go outside and be cold or hungry for a few days — be uncomfortable,” he urges.
When Easter started doing this himself, he realized that 99% of his life was “completely wonderful,” but that he was too fixated on the remaining 1% to notice. “We need moments that give our goalposts a big shove back in the right direction.”
Easter’s ideas have some commonsense appeal. There’s also research that supports them.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescence found that young people who spent eight or nine days roughing it in the wilderness enjoyed numerous mental health benefits, including reduced stress and improvements in mindfulness, happiness, self-efficacy, and life satisfaction.
While not a lot of work has examined the role of physical discomfort in adult mental health, a 2008 paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses speculated that cold showers could help treat depression.
The author of that paper — a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University named Nikolai Shevchuk — wrote that depression may partly result from a lifestyle “that lacks certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution.” The absence of physical stress, he wrote, “may cause inadequate functioning of the brain.” (In his paper, which pops up a lot online, he says that he has successfully alleviated his own depression by switching to cold showers, and so have several other people he knows.)
Looking beyond physical discomfort, some researchers have found that misfortune and adversity — once overcome—may lead to an improved outlook and other well-being benefits.
A 2013 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science surveyed nearly 15,000 people about their experience with hardships such as a divorce or the death of a loved one. On average, the more of these hardships a person had lived through, the more that person was able to enjoy and appreciate “small pleasures”— an ability the study authors termed “savoring.”
“Ironically,” they wrote, “savoring may be undermined by positive life circumstances.”
Alyssa Croft, PhD, is the first author of that study and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. She highlights an overlooked element of her study, which is that the people who benefitted from prior hardships had to feel like those trials were behind them. “If they were in the midst of a tough time” — even if it sprang from an event years or decades in the past — “their savoring capacity was understandably diminished,” she says.
“This topic seems especially relevant and timely in light of the year we’ve all had,” she adds. “Once we are on the other side of this pandemic, many of life’s simple pleasures will probably seem all the sweeter for it.”
“All of these comforts we have are great. We just need a little more awareness of how these can suck us in and blind us in a way that causes a lot of internal suffering.”
Her group’s research bears a resemblance to findings from the field of human longevity. There, studies have revealed that, rather than dodging life’s difficult or trying experiences, many of the world’s longest-lived people have endured wars, famine, and other physically and emotionally challenging events. These people “didn’t see their stress as meaningless,” says Leslie Martin, PhD, a professor of psychology at California’s La Sierra University. “It seemed to fuel them.”
Martin is co-author of The Longevity Project, a book that recounts and summarizes an 80-year research effort into the correlates of human longevity. “This ability to think about the hard things we go through as ultimately beneficial — whether to ourselves or to people we care about or to society at large — seems to be important,” she says.
All of this work suggests that contentment is partly built on helpful contrasts — juxtapositions that restore life’s luster and that imbue us with gratitude rather than envy or longing. In order to relish the good, you may need to be well-acquainted with the bad.
Easter recommends backcountry camping, skipping a meal or two, participating in endurance sports, or taking breaks from your phone or other comparison-inducing entertainments. These are the kinds of mild challenges that reorient your emotional compass and rebalance your priorities. I should disclose that Easter and I are friends. We worked together a decade ago at Men’s Health magazine, and since then we’ve kept in touch. Incidentally, he also recently wrote a piece for Elemental.
When we spoke on the phone about his new book, he told me that, following his adventure in the Arctic, he became much more aware of how worked up many people get — and how worked up he used to get — in response to life’s trivial inconveniences.
“I see the stuff posted on my neighborhood’s HOA message board, and it helps remind me of how ridiculous we’ve gotten,” he said. “All of these comforts we have are great, and we should be thankful for them. We just need a little more awareness of how these can suck us in and blind us in a way that causes a lot of internal suffering.”