Seeking fulfillment through intentional discomfort

Most of us go to tremendous lengths to avoid discomfort. Fast food, remote controls, and pre-sliced apples arguably make life easier—but often at a disproportionately high cost. What if the discomfort you hide from represents a life-altering opportunity?

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I’ve noticed something contradictory. When I feel gloomy, I don’t want to do anything. (If I follow this course, little about my mood changes.) The last thing I want to do is go for a run, start a new project, or clean the house. However, if I force myself to do any of these uncomfortable things, I tend to feel better.

We go to lengths to avoid discomfort

All of us seek ways to make our lives easier. This is a big part of what drives us forward as a species. Weapons allowed us to hunt more effectively, stabilizing our diets and mitigating hunger. Machines lowered the demand on manual labor, affording us time with loved ones and more opportunities to think and explore. Computers simplified countless tasks and democratized tools for a great many.

The value of technological advancement is enormous. Not all advancements are equally worthwhile, though. There are pre-sliced apples (wrapped in plastic), snowball makers, spaghetti-twirling forks, and someone even tried to deliver pancakes in a can. I probably don’t need to convince you of the limited value these conveniences offer to us as a species.

The line isn’t always so clear, though. Elevators are important in tall buildings, as well as for the elderly and disabled; however, some take them just to avoid climbing a single flight of stairs. Pre-washed lettuce seems like a waste of plastic, but probably results in people eating their allotment of daily greens. Drive-throughs mean wasteful emissions from idling cars, but are awfully nice when winter weather is at its most severe.

We treat comfort as a big deal. This has a lot to do with advertising. Most of us feel dissatisfied on some level. Corporations tell us that their one magical thing will rectify our unease. Typically this promise comes in some form of comfort: A delicious treat; A few extra inches of legroom on your flight; Or, perhaps, heated seats in your car. These comforts aren’t intrinsically bad—in fact, they can be quite nice—but they can only deliver so much.

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

— Marcus Aurelius

Comfort comes at a price

Along with the niceness that comforts afford, many come with less desirable consequences. The comfort you feel by always being busy at the office leaves you overwhelmed and ineffective. The comfort that comes from receiving praise keeps you from asking harder—and possibly more important—questions. Your avoidance of manual labor makes life easier, but robs of the fulfillment such work can bring.

Your comfortable car and desk job make you fat. The fast food that’s so immediately satisfying leaves you sick. Then there’s “retail therapy.” That wonderful feeling of getting what you want when you want it, leads to credit card purchases that turn you into a slave. The conveniences you buy? Sure, they bring comfort, but many quickly find their way into landfills.

Checking Facebook feels good, but these ongoing dopamine hits leave you dumber and less able to focus. Your oldies station sparks up warm memories and good feelings, but shuts you off from new ideas. Your familiar couch keeps you from experiencing the world. And your cozy beliefs limit you from better understanding how things truly are.

Contrasting inputs to their yields

I recently came upon a theory about nutrition. It stated that part of why we overeat, is that our bodies are lacking certain nutrients. The notion goes on to suggest that when this happens, our bodies tell us to eat more so we can access those nutrients. Unfortunately, those whose diets are rich in calories, but low in nutrients, continue to eat—without fulfilling this need.

I don’t know if this theory is accurate. Nevertheless, I consider it an apt analogy for our lives. For example, social media is high in content calories, but low on informational nutrients. So, we’re stimulated, but not more informed. Consumer goods are high in fun calories, but low on fulfillment nutrients. So, we have more stuff, but it doesn’t make us happier. Instant gratification is high in power calories; but low in autonomy nutrients. So, our credit cards give us the illusion of power, but actually enslave us—having the opposite effect of what we yearned for.

Ultimately, we seem to misunderstand our inputs and their effects. Back in my early 20s, I thought orange juice was healthy. (It’s made of oranges, right?) As such, I’d drink a few glasses in a row, not realizing that the stuff wasn’t that different from soda. This story represents the crux of my argument: We keep pressing the buttons we were told to press, and find ourselves surprised when they don’t yield much. What we should be asking ourselves, though, is whether we’re pressing the right buttons.

We’re all mixed up

I suspect that we simply do not understand what drives us. We don’t know what’s good for us, nor what will make us happy. I’d go even one step further and say that we don’t even know whether we should even pursue happiness. Admittedly, this all becomes rather confusing.

Our appetites deceive us. The thing we desire right at this moment might not be in our long term best interests. Meanwhile, we’re hard-wired to search for paths of least resistance (in part to conserve energy). Our mindset also limits us. We seek absolute answers where they simply do not exist. There is no switch one can flip that’ll deliver lasting happiness. Both happiness and fulfillment are elusive and fleeting—and the steps that lead to either can be paradoxical.

From these observations, a new set of baseline assumptions emerges: We shouldn’t trust our “teachers” (specifically: the media). The notions of happiness espoused by entertainment and advertisers don’t hold up in real life. This extends to all of our habits and beliefs. In our 200,000 years, modern humans certainly haven’t universally codified how to achieve fulfillment. With this in mind, testing alternatives seems prudent.

Gaining awareness through opposition

Following the crowd doesn’t always afford much insight. Those who are part of it might have good intentions, and afford sensible recommendations; however, these can only be incremental. When you’re firmly entrenched in one world view, it’s difficult to imagine possibilities outside of it. (Think I’m mistaken? Ask a capitalist to explain how an alternative political system might be viable. My bet is that he/she will only argue that there is no reasonable alternative.)

To gain broader insight, you sometimes need to upend your entire playing surface. Most don’t do this, because such inspection is highly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it can lead to altogether new perspectives. For example, you might ask questions like: What if we stopped worrying about growing our company? What if I rented all of my possessions? What if we paid people to go to school?

These ideas are actually quite viable. They only seem strange because you’re locked into certain paradigms. Nevertheless, paradigms often change. 100 years ago, a 40 hour workweek seemed scandalously short. 40 years ago, many considered imported cars junk. Heck, at one point radiation and smoking were promoted as healthy.

The lesson in all of this is that common thinking isn’t necessarily accurate thinking. Meanwhile, “crazy” ideas can be quite viable—and are mostly dismissed because they’re uncommon. I ask that you challenge some common assumptions. In doing so, you might discover opportunities others miss out on.

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”

—Kenji Miyazawa

More push-ups for you!

With this notion of challenging common assumptions, I have a question to ask you. What if, instead of avoiding discomfort, you sought it out? My bet is that you’d benefit from doing so. I think you already know this to be true, and simply frame it incorrectly.

You see discomfort as a sort of friction that stands between you and your goals. You think, “If I avoid that burger, I’ll be skinny,” and “If I force myself to run, I’ll be healthy.” Then you look for a way to achieve the same result, free of the discomfort. But what if there’s more to discomfort than being a means to an end? What if you need to truly foster it as a means of rewiring your brain?

Such a rewiring is important as it can lead you to recalibrate your expectations. All your life, you’ve been told you were special. Truth is, you’re not. (If it makes you feel any better, the rest of us aren’t, either.) Pursuing a life of discomfort is a way of telling yourself that you are not magical. In its wake is a life-perspective that is more in line with what’s viable.

It also takes you out of a very dumb race that many choose to partake in: one of seeking accolades. This gives way to a growth mindset. By continually processing new places, ideas, and influences (all of which require discomfort) you force personal growth. Similarly, discomfort often brings disproportionate benefits. On a run, for example, I’ll discover new ideas, gain clarity, and relax a bit.

A big, beautiful world of discomfort

The nice part about discomfort, is that you needn’t look far to find it. When everyone else is driving to work, you can walk or ride your bike. Doing so will make you more clear-headed and stronger. You’ll also save money and meet people in your neighbourhood. Instead of succumbing to fast food and pre-packaged dinners, you can commit to preparing unprocessed foods. This will further improve your health. It’ll also reset your expectations, so you’ll properly enjoy the occasional indulgences you afford yourself.

You’ll give up the comfort of a credit card, and instead pay with only cash. This’ll make you more aware of your spending habits, grow your bank balance, and leave you feeling more empowered. You might also try packing all your possessions away and living with just the essentials. This’ll lead you to appreciate what you do have—and realize how many things you don’t even need.

Social media likes and other such acknowledgement is validating, but mostly unimportant. Log out of social media until you’ve read one substantial work. This’ll build your knowledge base and help you regain the ability to focus. You might also give up being busy, and experience the discomfort of taking on harder, more purposeful work—which can afford a notable sense of accomplishment. You might even commit to some “menial” work (house cleaning, lawn mowing, fence mending) and realize the fulfillment it can bring.

Try arguing a viewpoint that isn’t your own. Or, listen to music that’s unfamiliar. Or, skip Netflix in favour of a walk in a different neighbourhood. None of these are comfortable acts, but if you pursue them, you’ll be better for having done so.

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”

―Seneca

How to set yourself up for discomfort

Seeking comfort is easy and familiar. You’ve probably done so, for your entire life. Seeking discomfort is a notion few would understand, none-to-mention pursue. Should you choose to do so, you might benefit by considering the following.

First, you must take ownership of your situation. No one owes you anything. Your worst day probably represents someone else’s best. (The fact that you’re reading an article about seeking discomfort speaks volumes.) If you choose to pursue discomfort, recognize that you’re doing so for yourself and not anyone else.

Then commit to seeking out hardship. This seems like a concession, but it’s not. Even if you don’t commit to such a path, your life will likely have its share of challenge. Instead of attempting to escape discomfort, get friendly with it. Learn to love the part that everyone else hates. (You might be surprised by how different life is when you avoid the crowds in this way.)

Then move from dealing in the theoretical to establishing some uncomfortable habits. Forget about goals—those are commonly a mirage. Instead, force activity through small steps. Give your chair away, so you must stand at your desk all day. Sell your car, so you’re forced to ride your bike. Fill your fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables, so you feel obliged to eat them. Have someone else program your playlist, so you listen to different music. Commit to a hard project with a firm deadline, so you’re obligated to quiet distractions and do the work.

What to expect from discomfort

The beauty of this self-help plan? I don’t need to promise anything! Nope, you will not be immediately changed, nor a better person, for following this approach. Your life will not be easier, nor will your path be any more clear. Sorry, friend, life doesn’t work that way. (And anyone who says it does is quite probably trying to sell you something.)

None of this will come easy. Discomfort will bring silence. Those long runs. Those meals at home. The many hours of work. The absence from social media. All this silence can be wonderful—but it’s often just deafening. Worse yet, your friends will think your nuts. Talking about the value of discomfort to those who prize comfort is like trying to sell rain coats in the Sahara. This separation will be uncomfortable and leave you feeling alone. It’ll also be monotonous. But most lives are anyway—just not by choice, or with purpose.

The potential upsides are many, but certainly not absolute. Discomfort can lead to greater clarity, improved wellness, more savings, and a general sense of evenness or balance. You’ll also gain compound interest on these habits. Most successful ventures require a lot of disciplined work—and few are willing to commit to discomfort for that long. Personally, though, I think the biggest benefit of discomfort is the ability to live more on one’s own terms. Most of us are controlled by our need for comfort—and I’d like to buck that trend.

One parting note: In none of the above do I mean to imply that comfort can’t be good. It quite often is. That said, it isn’t everything. As such, you must control its quantity and placement. I think of it like salt: a sprinkle brings out the flavour. Drowning your meal in it, though, will ruin the entire experience.