Is too much comfort bad for us?
The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self
What's the ultimate goal in this life? Is it to transcend the problems of everyday reality and retire in comfort and serenity near the beach? Or is it to test our limits regularly and embrace the discomfort and challenges of being a human being? This is a question many of us take for granted. We all think that retiring rich, fat, and happy should be the ultimate goal, but how many of us would be lonely and bored should we ever reach that plateau?
The Comfort Crisis looks in depth at these questions and how our unending search for comfort and convenience has robbed us of much of our vitality and humanity. Michael Easter is an UNLV professor and editor for Men's Health magazine, and has come up with this thought-provoking book, his first.
The author does an excellent job at combining fascinating discussions of scientific research with his own journey- a 33 day trip through the most remote Alaska back country.
Easter calls this trip, where he goes as far from civilization as you can get in North America, a Misogi. Taken from Japanese mythology, a Misogi is a purification ritual that is meant to be an epic challenge, one where there is a substantial risk of failure that somehow stretches humans past boundaries they didn't know they had. By embracing comfort, so many of us have lost sight of our potential, and this intense ritual is a way of breaking past the barriers that make us cozy and contented.
For most of human history over thousands and thousands of years, our bodies have evolved to handle intense physical challenges. Our embrace of electronic devices and comfy chairs has shut down all of this evolutionary advantage and made many of us miserable for reasons we don't understand. Even our exercise routines have to be short, efficient, and comfortable in shiny, new fitness centers.
Easter leaves his Las Vegas home for the Alaskan wilderness with two seasoned companions and has to endure long walks over uneven terrain, blinding wind and snowstorms, going on a primitive hunt for caribou, one of the last wild pack animals of North America. This book is unique in how it weaves the story of Easter's adventure with the research from back home that ties in with all of his experiences. I could write a full blog on any of these discoveries, but here is a summary of the top twelve from this book.
1- People who face adversity feel better off both physically and psychologically than those who don't. Pain feels less intense, and anxiety is lower because there's a resilience and knowledge that they can handle whatever comes. Those who live in comfort all the time react much more poorly to even minor challenges.
2- The reason that time seems to pass so quickly as you age is that you get more comfortable and on autopilot as you get older. Memories are triggered mainly when you are learning things and overcoming obstacles, and that is what makes time seem to slow down. In your youth you are always learning and restructuring your brain, which keeps it young and makes time seem to stretch out.
3- Americans have changed from 5% living in rural areas in 1776 to 85% in 2020. Urban areas are filled with more conveniences, but they also come with more mental and physical illnesses that drag on our happiness. As population density increases, happiness decreases according to what's called the Savannah Theory of Happiness.
4- Boredom is good for us. It forces us to tap into our creativity and look for new pathways. Today's digital menu of smartphones, streaming content, and the internet robs us of those opportunities, and addicts us to attention-grabbing cotton candy for the mind. Easter claims we spend 11 hours per day on digital media, but I've seen 8-9 hours elsewhere. In any case, it's an enormous chunk of our day. One of the best things about a Misogi like this is that it took the author away from all of his content, which forced his brain to adapt and find new ways to combat boredom.
5- For those who crave comfort, going out in nature is difficult. Nature is unpredictable, uncertain, and often uncomfortable. Weather can be hot, cold, or rainy, and the further out you go the more you have to leave your security and comforts behind. But going out in nature is critical for mental and spiritual well-being. Being in nature allows your default mode network to activate and for you to detach from your problems. Easter recommends a minimum of three 20-minute walks in nature per week, or up to 5 hours a month in nature. To get the best effect, a minimum of 3 days out in nature with minimal creature comforts can bring great restorative powers to the human brain.
6- To combat poor eating habits, the book recommends combating mindless eating with food diaries. We routinely underestimate what we eat, and Easter talks with an expert who says you can eat anything that you want, as long as you limit your total calories and focus on foods that actually fill you up. While junk foods are calorie dense, they are ultimately unsatisfying and leave you still hungry. Potatoes are one of the best foods you can eat to fill you up, as long as they aren't processed or fried. A lot of foods can be considered "comfort foods"- treats meant to calm down your anxieties or depression. The effects of these foods don't last long at all, and the author encourages people to deal with their stress and discomfort in other ways, not through eating.
7- Easter looks at intermittent fasting, which is a trendy nutritional topic these days. Going for 12-16 hours without food can sometimes be a good strategy because it gives the body a chance to go after "trash cells" once all the food in the stomach has been metabolized. Humans before the 20th century often went for days without food, and our eating is governed more by clocks and triggers than actual hunger.
8- The book takes an unexpected detour to Bhutan, where the author meets with spiritual leaders to talk about death. We hear from the secretary of happiness from one of the happiest countries in the world. He says that a strong sense of community and attachment to the land are much more important than chasing that next job or purchase. And confronting the uncomfortable fact that death is coming can prod humans to appreciate life much more and look for the scenic route instead of the fastest lane.
9- Hunting in some ways can be more humane than natural death. The caribou in the book dies in seconds, where usually they would die slowly and painfully as their pack moves on without them. Those of us who love animals have no idea how cruel nature can actually be.
10- Humans are gifted with a great ability to travel long distances on foot and carry heavy objects at the same time. One of the great fitness ideas from this book is something called rucking. People in the military ruck often when they carry heavy backpacks on long hikes. The author carried over 100 pounds of caribou meat on his back. This type of exercise combines cardio and strength workouts in the same activity and has been shown to build both muscles and endurance.
11- 80% of back pain comes from either being too active or not enough. Opioids are not a solution, but gentle exercises that increase flexibility and core strength help greatly with this common malady.
12- While modern sanitation practices have saved humanity from terrible contagious diseases, there could be such a thing as too much hygiene. Some doctors are thinking that over-sanitization could be causing more health problems, especially auto-immune diseases like allergies, inflammatory bowels, rheumatoid arthritis, and type-1 diabetes. The hygiene hypothesis says that the vast majority of bacteria and germs are either harmless or even beneficial, and that without enough of them, our bodies start attacking things they shouldn't (one reason autoimmune diseases have been on the rise since modern sanitation practices became so common.)
This book is one of my favorites of 2021, and is filled with food for thought. While I'm not likely to explore the Alaskan outback any time soon, it makes me want to spend more time away from my routines to see what I'm capable of. A Misogi doesn't have to be life-threatening, but the act of taking forest baths, digital detoxes, sabbaticals, and retreats have been popular all over the world and can be remarkably restorative.
Comfort is nice and inviting, but like anything else must be done in moderation. Sometimes it's important to be uncomfortable, especially if taken on voluntarily. Too much discomfort can make us miserable, but so can too much comfort. As with everything else the key is finding the sweet spot- the perfect balance that both challenges and restores us. Books like this help to examine the costs and benefits of too much comfort, which is what the author says is dragging many of us down.