There, there, Baby. Snuggle under this cozy blanket with a trashy novel and a hot cup of cinnamon tea. I’ll put on some Enja in case you feel like dozing. Isn’t that nice? What’s that? Oh don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone about the Enja.
I like comfort. It feels great, by definition, but there are plenty of arguments about how comfort isn’t good for us. Daniel Lieberman explains,
“We have been marketed and sold all kinds of products that we’ll willingly buy because they’re comfortable. Air conditioning makes us comfortable, but is it good for us? Probably not. The list goes on. Comfortable chairs, for example. Just think about how bad chairs are for us today. Paper after paper, study after study, have shown that chairs give us back problems because they shorten our hip flexors, give us weak backs, of course it make us sedentary. We take years off our lives probably by sitting in chairs, but we like them because they’re comfortable. You go to an African village, you find me a chair with a back. That’s a rare thing out there. We love comfort, and people make a lot of money selling us comfort, but I would challenge the notion that comfort is usually good for us.”†
In contrast to comfort, catchy slogans tell us to go to the opposite extreme.
Scare yourself every day.
No pain, no gain.
Just do it.
We can take comfort in the new age answer to everything painful: There must be a lesson here. The implication isn’t that pain is just part of being alive. It’s that we always have something to learn from it. Pain is intrinsically enlightening.
We could get all Nietzschean an shit and count on pain to be our strength trainer.
The problem with these handy quips is their seductive simplicity, and as rules they are misleading at best. Sometimes pain just hurts. That which comes close to killing us is likely to make us a lot weaker. There is no good reason to scare yourself every day. Some people make great gains without great pain, and “just do it,” anything that is, is a ridiculous motto.
So the question remains, if not by barreling through them, then,
How do we respond to pain, discomfort, and fear?
Another argument for small uncomfortable steps
Let me pose another approach. Imagine the opposite of comfort is curiosity.
In the Kurt Vonnuget’s The Sirens of Titan a brainwashed soldier receives a shock to his brain whenever he asks a question he’s not supposed to ask. Our hero Unk learns that the pain is a signal that he’s asked something important. He learns to ask smaller questions that don’t hurt so much. He then puts the smaller answers together to learn the big important answers..
Doctors who help people with debilitating phobias go through stages of very small steps to desensitize them. Lobbing a big ol’ boa constrictor into the lap of an ophidiophobe would be traumatizing.
Likewise, most personal growth happens through a process of managed discomfort and a realistic plan. Curiosity leads that process: I wonder what will happen if I do this, or this?
Next week, I’ll announce a great way to make yourself uncomfortable, not for the sake of it, but because you want something that hasn’t been handed to you like a warm cup of cocoa, and your curiosity burns.
In the meantime, try these mottos on for size.
Face your fears a little at a time.
Pain is overrated;
try something less painful.
Just do it, when doing it
is the next thing you need to do.
I wonder what will happen
if I do this, or this?
Granted, not as catchy.
†Daniel Leiberman is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He studies the biology and evolution of heads and feet.