Review of The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter

Humans need problems of some sort, apparently.  When we solve the problems we have, we look for new ones.  If we cannot find ones of similar severity, we get involved with less challenging ones.  Early in The Comfort Crisis, we learn that people who are asked to look for hostile facial expressions in sets of photos will continue to find them even as those faces are gradually removed, leaving neutral to happier expressions.  Another interesting example was research suggesting that TSA workers stop and inspect similar numbers and categories of objects, no matter how many luggage items coming through security are actually prohibited.

Subject by subject, from physical movement to food intake moderation to contemplating our own mortality, and various others, this book convincingly makes a case that as we become more comfortable, our capacities decrease while our level of discontent remains the same or even increases.

To me, this notion is clearly linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.  If we’re losing options and freedom, without gaining a bit of peacefulness or empowerment in exchange, we’re getting a raw deal.

I found this book engaging to read, as at least one third of it (I estimate) was the author’s interspersed account of his own journey of becoming uncomfortable, mostly during a multi-week Alaskan caribou-hunting excursion, in which he “rucked” heavy gear (and later, heavy caribou meat) through cold and rough terrain far from civilization and mental stimulation.  Boredom, experienced during day-long waits for caribou herds, and another pain from which modern life keeps us thoroughly protected from, was examined as an evolutionary adaptation that is helpful to spend time in, as a highly uncomfortable but important motivator to try new things or come up with new ideas.

The rest of the book is a well-selected and explained collection of relevant science to support the general thesis that too much comfort leads to unhappiness, especially in the long run, and conscious and strategic seeking of discomfort leads to greater peace, confidence, and contentment, also especially in the long run.

In some instances, I found myself asking if what was advocated (e.g. silence), was actually less comfortable, or simply more natural and congruent with our psychobiology.  For example, silence can be, for some, uncomfortable.  But so can noise, and many go to places where they can get away from noise to become more comfortable.

For me, reading this book was “preaching to the choir”.  I have long held the belief that it’s beneficial, and even necessary, to step out of our comfort zones.  But I found it validating and reinforcing of these beliefs, as well as enjoyable and inspiring to listen to on a challenging long run/hike up to a 10,000 foot peak, affirming that I was doing something healthy and important for my body and spirit.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is wanting to increase their willpower, discipline, and attention/focus.

Leave a Reply