There are no shortage of hardships and challenges in the world today. Difficulty and strife have been a part of human existence since our single-celled ancient ancestry but in the last few decades the concept of personal comfort has become cultishly worshiped and petulantly expected to a now self-harming degree. It is not a phenomenon which spontaneously appeared out of nowhere, however. It is something we have been led to over the course of the last two centuries.
Life is a constant process of navigating away from discomfort and towards comfort. In this pursuit humans are not unique. We can see it even at the level of single celled organisms. Being in a state of comfort is more pleasurable, desirable, preferable, no question. Wanting our lives to be discomfort free is a natural impulse which can seem completely rational and healthy, at least on the surface.
Trouble is life is in a constant state of flux and change. And change is always uncomfortable as it unfolds. Even change we desire and which is ultimately a positive enhancement of our lives will always entail discomfort as part of the process. In order to gain a new result, even a vastly better one, we must do something we have not done before. We must break old patterns and formulas and move into spaces and territories we are not familiar with which evokes very real feelings of fear.
Our familiar turf and patterns could even be terrible, counterproductive, painful, harmful, but our innate fear of the unknown can reframe that familiarity into seeming appealing enough to hold us hostage. We choose to stay trapped with ‘the devil we know’ rather than face an enigmatic unknown which could be better but could also, for all we know, be infinitely worse.
Confronting our fears and pushing into an unknown is never comfortable. For some charging into those fears can be exhilarating. Exhilaration can certainly be a positive and even enjoyable feeling but it is also, however, not comfortable. We might love a good rollercoaster but we don’t curl up and sleep on them.
Life is constantly changing and discomfort is part of change. All living things try to avoid as much discomfort and pursue as much comfort as possible. From foraging the most easily accessible food to covering up with animal skins for warmth to crafting tools to make tasks easier to delegating tasks within communities to establishing leaderships for guidance and protection of societies to improving the speed and effectiveness of industry to seeking out social groups which most align with our perspectives and beliefs. Pursuing comfort and betterment has been with us long before our ancestors were even capable of swimming in the oceans much less crawling out of them.
As we approach the first quarter mark of the 21st century, however, we as a global society have elevated this pursuit from simply being a powerful foundational drive to a level where it appears to have become the primary purpose of our lives. And it is a shift which has happened in just the last two hundred years or so.
The idealizing of personal comfort has been a part of pretty much every recorded civilization but one of the many impacts of the First Industrial Revolution was the introduction of widely dispersible wealth. Up until the late 1700’s wealth, and the idealized comfort associated with it, had been the sole privilege of the very selective and elite ruling class. With the advent of industrial production methods and the mass urbanization it engendered personal wealth became something one could build and achieve rather than only inherit.
The pursuit of this newly attainable wealth came with a whole new swath of discomforts as working conditions in factories were absolutely abysmal but the possibility of wealth was now a genuine one and enormous amounts of the world’s population shifted from rural areas towards the exponentially growing urban ones. A new, and large, middle class was born.
The Second Industrial Revolution brought with it greater conscientiousness around working conditions, with the development of worker unionization, and also brought an overall increase in the average standard of living. Expanding access to electricity, the invention of the telephone, and assembly line production all not only accelerated the engines of industry but also shifted the focus away from merely providing sustenance for the population and instead towards improving the qualitative experience of daily life.
That focus was then superseded in the first half of the 20th century as all efforts were redirected to the support and recovery from the first and second world wars. Industrial and technological innovations continued during this time, even amidst the immense economic turbulence of the Great Depression, and in the 1950’s the engines of industry once again fixated on improving, and thereby appealing to, the convenience and comfort of everyday life.
The thriving industrial complex built a world around us which seemed obsessed with our personal comfort but it wasn’t until the 70’s and 80’s that social ideology began to first imply and then decree we were inalienably entitled to that comfort.
Early 1970’s psychological research into the effects of self-perception on problem solving found a correlation between levels of effectiveness and levels of self-esteem. Many of the researchers made a leap of inference pointing to the levels of self-esteem as being the cause of the level of outcome, high self-esteem resulted in higher levels of success.
Despite the cautionary voices of other researchers pointing out that the causative relationship could just as easily go the other way around, higher levels of success leading to higher levels of self-esteem, the idea of self-esteem as being the secret ingredient to all around success in life gained more and more momentum.
It expanded from the world of academic research into politics where, spearheaded by such avid champions as Rep. John Vasconcellos of California (1932–2014), it made its way into the educational system. Stronger and stronger efforts were undertaken to ensure students’ self-esteem was bolstered as much as possible, which unfortunately warped into efforts to protect it instead. Early focus on encouraging success morphed into attempts to eliminate the possibility of failure.
The effects on self-esteem developed as hoped but all research tracking the results showed that higher self-esteem had virtually no impact on reducing aggression, anxiety, depression, or any of the maladaptive behaviors it had been hailed as the cure for.
But by then it was too late. The notion of the inherent ‘specialness’, and thereby inherent entitlement, of the individual had made its way into the greater social and commercial worlds. The ideology of achieving success (comfort) through the avoidance of discomfort, and protection from it, rather than the overcoming of it which is part of genuine sustainable growth found an instant and committed ally in the machines of industry which were already passionately catering to our personal convenience.
‘Convenient’ and ‘easy’ became the primary metrics of social-commercial appeal and had an immensely powerful guiding hand on the wheel as computer technologies exploded first in terms of hardware and then in software leading to the development of social media which now both offers access to every aspect of our lives and has taken wholesale possession of it.
To bring it all full circle, comfort is undeniably more pleasurable than discomfort. Desiring more comfort and less discomfort is natural, rational, and a bedrock primal drive of all living organisms.
The pervasive and toxic trouble is our persistent attempts to find short-cuts to that comfort have resulted in us being marinated in two ultimately debilitating deceptions.
The first — feeling good, comfortable, gets portrayed as being synonymous with feeling good about ourselves. Feeling pleasure is depicted as both evidence and guarantee of feeling happy, with our lives and ourselves. Hence if we live in the luxury house we will be happy and if we never lose we will always feel like a winner.
That is not how life works. We only achieve lasting and genuine belief in ourselves, actual self-esteem, through accomplishment and something is only an accomplishment if we had to overcome challenges and discomfort in order to achieve it. Otherwise all we are gaining is a momentary sensation of pleasure which wears off leaving nothing behind, aside from a craving for the next fix and a lingering if subconscious awareness that we didn’t actually generate that pleasure ourselves. We received it rather than achieved it.
And that is an absolutely vital distinction. If we are able to achieve that comfort and pleasure through our own efforts despite whatever obstacles were in our way then we have stable and genuine confidence we will be able to do so again, we have genuine self-confidence and self-esteem.
If the pleasure is provided to us from some other source then not only do we gain none of that all important and empowering confidence we also become dependent on that outside source. This becomes a recipe for enormous and intense amounts of fear it can be denied or taken away from us and we, without any true belief in our own capabilities, will be powerless to do anything about it.
The Second — feeling good is something the world owes us because of our inherent specialness. We are all told we are each special and deserving of happiness, deserving of love, of acceptance, success, and safety. And thus anything which creates discomfort is depriving or robbing us of that which we are guaranteed and entitled to.
That is also not how life works. We can all agree the desire for people to have guaranteed access to sustenance, safety, and belonging is pretty universal but we also have to acknowledge the circumstances of our lives are massively impacted by many factors which are completely outside of our control.
It is not the job of the country, planet, or universe to provide us with happiness and satisfaction. The truth is it is our job to find happiness and satisfaction in the circumstances we are presented with. There is always room to try and improve our circumstances but the key element there is that we work to improve our circumstances. We strive for it.
This can sometimes come in the form of dedicated hard work or of study or of standing up in protest against the injustice of current circumstances or any other number of forms. The common ingredient is our effort on our own behalf.
The notion our lives are ‘supposed’ to be comfortable is not something we have invented all by ourselves. Our current standard of living is, for the most part, almost immeasurably higher than at any other time in human history. And we are constantly fed the message of comfort from convenience focused commercial industry and from a tilted societal view that feeling pleasure is the same as genuine happiness.
True happiness begins with our own capabilities and self-perceptions and is not dependent upon the next acquired ‘thing’. True happiness is something we build, exerting effort and persevering through challenges and obstacles, and is earned through enduring the discomfort all growth and change requires.
It is something we achieve, not something we receive.