The Comfort Crises

Are you feeling comfortable? Lying on a comfy couch, or driving in an air-conditioned car? For most of us, modern life is incredibly comfortable, at least compared to how our ancestors lived. The author decided to get out of his comfort zone, spending a month hunting caribou in the Alaskan wilderness, and reflecting on his own mortality in Bhutan. His conclusion? We can all benefit from exposing ourselves to greater levels of physical and mental discomfort. It might even be the path to true happiness.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Physical challenges and new experiences improve our mental well-being. For a happy, healthy life, we need exercise – ideally outdoors, with other people, while carrying weights.

  2. Distinguish cravings from real hunger, and accept that it’s OK to feel hungry sometimes.

  3. Thinking about death and impermanence can make us happier, and help us to live more meaningful lives. Challenge your preconceptions and seek out new experiences.

Modern life is comfortable, but it’s not making us happy.

Every morning, the author woke up in his soft, comfortable bed. He drove to work, where he spent the day sitting in an ergonomic office chair. The second he felt bored, he reached for his smartphone. He spent evenings binge-watching TV on a plush couch while snacking on junk food. Even his exercise routine was comfortable – working out in an air-conditioned gym. In a way, life was good. He’d worked hard and overcome an addiction to alcohol in order to attain such a peaceful, comfortable lifestyle. But one day he asked himself, What would happen if I got rid of all these comforts?

For thousands of years, everyday life was a challenge – a fight for survival. Our distant ancestors spent almost every waking moment on the move, searching for food and shelter. It wasn’t until relatively recently in human history that the average person began to enjoy the comforts we now take for granted, like a steady food supply.

Our lives are undeniably easier now, but comfort doesn’t equal happiness. In fact, it seems that many people are more stressed and depressed than ever. The physical struggles of survival have been replaced by mental challenges, like rising levels of anxiety and occupational burnout. Efforts to numb ourselves with food, alcohol, and screens just increase our sense of dissatisfaction.

Although humans are hardwired to seek comfort, it’s not necessarily good for us. Some anthropologists have speculated that we were actually happier thousands of years ago. Our needs were simpler and easier to satisfy, and we were naturally mindful, living in the moment. After reflecting on his ultra comfortable life, the author decided it was time to experience discomfort. He set himself the challenge of a month-long hunting trip in the Alaskan wilderness, sleeping in a tent. All the comforts of modern life would be stripped away.

This trip was a transformative experience for him. After just a few days he already felt calmer, fitter, and more in tune with the natural world. Camping in Arctic Alaska may not be your idea of a vacation.

Physical challenges and new experiences improve our mental well-being.

There’s going for a walk, and then there’s walkabout – a rite of passage for Aboriginal Australians. For up to six months, young men roam the Australian outback, coping with temperatures of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Challenges include the lack of food and shelter and the presence of some of the deadliest snakes in the world.

Many communities across the world have similar rites of passage. By undergoing intense challenges, young people come home with greater levels of physical and mental strength, and a stronger sense of identity. In contrast, many young Americans are barely allowed to go outdoors unsupervised. “Helicopter parenting” has turned into “snowplow parenting,” as anxious parents forcefully remove any possible obstacle or risk from their children’s lives.

Challenges make us stronger. There’s even a name for this phenomenon – “the toughening theory.” Researchers at the University of Buffalo studied a large, varied group of Americans, asking them about the stressors they’d experienced in their lives, like serious illness or the death of a loved one. Next, researchers analyzed the health of the participants.

Interestingly, the participants who’d experienced adversity had higher levels of mental well-being and overall satisfaction. Their difficult life experiences toughened them, making them more resilient and able to cope with new challenges. Of course, being completely overwhelmed by negative experiences isn’t good for us. But a sheltered life isn’t optimal either. We need a balance. In some cases, that means actively seeking out new experiences and challenges, creating our own rites of passage.

The author discovered the benefits before he even reached Alaska. As he prepared for the trip, he interrupted his usual routine. Instead of zoning out in front of the same old TV shows, he was studying survival skills and calculating calorie requirements. Being forced to learn new skills and think about new things was the perfect way to snap out of autopilot and get rid of his mental clutter. Changing your routine and learning a new skill are just two ways to clear your mind. There’s something else you can try, but it’s harder and even more uncomfortable. Would you be willing to embrace boredom and solitude?

We can recharge by experiencing solitude and boredom, and spending time in nature.

If he screamed, no one would hear him. If he danced naked, no one would see him. He was completely alone, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. The sensation was unnerving but also liberating. In the few hours the author spent alone, he reflected on how rare real solitude has become. We’re almost never alone. Technology allows us to stay in contact constantly. And yet, paradoxically, nearly 50 percent of Americans claim to feel lonely. It’s even been described as a loneliness epidemic.

While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best ways to combat loneliness is to spend more time alone. If you can learn to be comfortable in your own company, it’s easier to cope with periods of isolation – even a pandemic lockdown. And studies have shown that there are other benefits to solitude, too, from improved creativity to increased empathy.

Periods of boredom are also beneficial and are particularly important for creativity. But our dependence on the distractions of smartphones means that we can no longer tolerate boredom. Consequently, we’re starting to feel burned out, and many people suffer from worrying levels of mental fatigue. Occasionally doing nothing is good for our brains. To really recharge, we need to put away our phones and spend time in nature, staring at trees rather than screens.

There have been countless studies on the benefits of time spent outdoors. For example, there’s the Japanese concept of “forest bathing.” Just two hours in the woods leads to a dramatic decline in levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Incredibly, even people with heart or kidney problems show improvement after a trip to the woods.

Any kind of natural environment can be relaxing, but to really reap the benefits of nature, you need to head to the wilderness. Spending time in wild parks leads to greater feelings of rest and relaxation than urban parks, and the effects can be long-lasting. A UC Berkeley study found that military veterans who went on a four-day rafting trip were still feeling the benefits a week later, with significant reductions in PTSD symptoms and stress levels. They felt happier and calmer. Spending time in nature resets your brain. But what about the rest of your body?

Distinguish cravings from real hunger, and accept that it’s OK to feel hungry sometimes.

Fad diets aren’t sustainable. Simply put, they don’t work. Only 3 percent of the people who lose weight succeed in keeping it off. Part of the problem is that we’re hopeless at estimating how much we eat. For instance, a 1992 study of overweight people found that participants who thought they were consuming around 1,000 calories were actually consuming double that. Why is it so hard to eat less? Again, it comes back to discomfort – the pangs of hunger are difficult to ignore.

Food cravings are normal. Our desire to snack on sweet treats or calorie-dense snacks actually has an evolutionary purpose. Consider how our ancestors lived, thousands of years ago. Food wasn’t easily available, which meant that the human body had to act as a kind of pantry. People had to eat more in preparation for times when food was scarce.

Thankfully, these days most of us rarely worry about where our next meal is coming from. But the cravings remain, and we end up eating for the wrong reasons – stress, habit, or boredom. It’s not real hunger. The secret to weight loss is simple – eat less, and eat when you’re really hungry. Try not to give in to the temptation to eat as soon as you feel a little bit hungry. For example, if you’re stressed and craving comfort food, try going for a quick walk instead. You may soon realize you weren’t hungry after all.

Short periods of fasting also have health benefits. Autophagy is an important biological process that removes weak cells from within the body. It’s the body’s way of “taking out the trash” – getting rid of cells associated with cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions. Constant snacking prevents the body from carrying out this vital process.

On his camping trip in Alaska, the author learned to become comfortable with the discomfort of hunger. It was intensely difficult at times, but he developed a new appreciation for food and greater insight into his own habits and hunger. For his next life lesson, however, he’d have to go on a very different journey.

Thinking about death and impermanence can make us happier, and help us to live more meaningful lives.

The author was feeling pretty good about life. But one day, while listening to a podcast, he heard about the cosmic calendar. This concept turns 14 billion years of existence into a single year. The big bang occurred at midnight on January 1. Earth came into existence in early September. The dinosaurs went extinct on December 30. Humans didn’t make their appearance until December 31, at 11:59 p.m.

When the author heard this, he panicked. He was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of his own mortality and insignificance. He and his loved ones would soon be dead. It was a deeply uncomfortable realization.

In the West, we try to avoid thinking about death. When a loved one dies, we’re told to keep busy, to keep our minds off it.But, in the Kingdom of Bhutan, in the Eastern Himalayas, people see death differently. In fact, they’re actively encouraged to think about their own deaths – up to three times a day. Ashes of the deceased are turned into clay pyramids and put on display in public areas. Death is part of life, after all.

Intrigued by Bhutan’s ranking as one of the happiest countries in the world, the author decided to visit. On his trip, he learned about Buddhist beliefs and discovered that thinking about death and impermanence can make people happier. Here’s one way of looking at it. Death is a cliff. Every single one of us is moving toward the edge. We can’t escape it, so we shouldn’t deny it. But we can change the way we get there – choosing the slow, scenic route, for example. Instead of fearing the inevitable, we should live mindfully, accept reality, and practice gratitude.

Changing your perspective on death isn’t easy. But if you want to be happier, give it a go – think about the cliff, and how you can make the most of your journey. And remember, that doesn’t mean having a checklist mentality. Your attitude is more important than your achievements.

For a happy, healthy life, we need exercise – ideally outdoors, with other people, while carrying weights.

The hardest part of hunting wasn’t killing but carrying. At one point during his Alaska trip, the author had to carry part of the caribou he’d shot. His pack weighed around 100 pounds, and he struggled with his uphill trek. It was the longest, most intense workout of his life. We think we know what our physical limits are, but we often underestimate ourselves. Studies have shown that exercise-induced fatigue is generally psychological, not physical. Our bodies are capable of so much more.

First, let’s consider how drastically our lifestyles have changed. Our early ancestors were incredibly active. Hunters regularly ran and walked 25 miles in a day. For us, it’s a marathon. For them, it was “picking up dinner.” Living an uncomfortable, unpredictable life fighting for survival inevitably means burning a lot more calories. Modern life is the opposite extreme. Twenty-seven percent of Americans don’t do any kind of physical activity – literally nothing. A sedentary lifestyle has become the norm, but it’s far from normal as far as our bodies are concerned. We weren’t made to sit all day.

We also weren’t made to run on a treadmill in a gym while staring at a screen. Of course it’s better than sitting, but there are much more effective and natural ways to exercise. We evolved doing physical work outside with friends, and this kind of exercise is far more stimulating and enjoyable. Exercise has a cognitive aspect, after all. If your mind is engaged as well as your body, you get a lot more out of your workout routine.

Another factor to consider is that humans are natural carriers – early humans were constantly carrying food and belongings as they moved from place to place. This kind of exercise is excellent for our health. Carrying weights is a cardio workout that builds strength and burns up to 2,000 calories an hour, depending on the weight and terrain.

If you’re looking for a new sport to take up, you could try rucking – an activity that combines weights, outdoor exercise, and a social aspect. Participants trek while carrying weighted bags, rather like military training. It may not be easy, but it’s certainly more stimulating than a solo gym workout.

Challenge your preconceptions and seek out new experiences.

Questioning our habits and beliefs can be uncomfortable, too. For example, consider the importance of handwashing. Even before COVID-19, most of us were regular, if not obsessive, hand washers. Hygiene equals health – or at least, that’s what we think. The Hadza people in Tanzania rarely wash their hands or bodies, and when they do, it’s in muddy puddles. They don’t have toilets. When they prepare food, which is often raw, their hands are dirty.

You’d expect the Hadza to be in poor health. But interestingly, these unsanitary practices, at least by Western standards, could factor into strengthening their immune systems to an astonishing degree. They don’t have Crohn’s, irritable bowel syndrome, or colon cancer – diseases which are on the rise in the West.

Scientists are beginning to wonder – could our obsession with hygiene be damaging? As we sanitize and sterilize everything – our outsides with soap, and our insides with antibiotics – we may even be harming our health. Our hygiene habits might explain our susceptibility to certain chronic diseases, as well as the boom in food allergies.

Perhaps we could learn something from the Hadza’s attitude toward hygiene, or from other cultural habits and lifestyles. Take the so-called “sea women” of Japan and Korea – female fishers who dive into the freezing sea without wetsuits. A study found that they’re less likely to catch a cold, get heart disease, or suffer from arthritis. Exposure to cold could be surprisingly good for health.

But remember: it’s not just a question of physical sensations. Having new experiences is the key to a life lived well. The author came back from his Alaska trip with heightened self-knowledge and awareness, as well as a fresh appreciation for life. By seeking new, more intense experiences, you can go through a similar transformation.

Think of life as a scrapbook. If you keep seeing and doing the same things, the book remains empty – life passes you by. An exciting new experience, such as a trip or a physical challenge, is a new page in your book. So, are you ready to start adding to your scrapbook? At times, it might not be comfortable. But a fulfilling, meaningful life rarely is.


What I took from it.

We think that the comforts of modern life should make us happy, but that’s often not the case. To live happier, healthier lives with a sense of purpose we need to get out of our comfort zones, taking inspiration from our distant ancestors. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your routine and your sedentary lifestyle, it might be time to seek new, physically challenging experiences.

Surround yourself in greenery. Camping in the wilderness may not appeal to you, but any time spent in nature can make a huge difference to your well-being. If you live in a city, make an effort to spend more time in parks. Or try putting some plants in your home or office space – it’s a quick and simple way to boost your mood.

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