Back in 2016, I had a fantastic opportunity to work with the African Development Bank in Malawi. The area I lived in was stricken with poverty. Power outages were a common occurrence, running water was non-existent, and we considered our hot place the kitchen.
To make matters more interesting, as far as I could tell, I was the only foreigner living in that area. Every time I stepped outside, people would either stare or yell at me to get my attention.
The kids would yell MUZUNGU, meaning, foreigner, or in the words of my host family,
“Someone who wanders around aimlessly and carries a lot of bags for no reason.”
From my living situation to the demands of my job, I was consistently outside of my comfort zone. While I value the experience, at the time, I was eager to return home, back to living a life of comfort.
Fast forward to today, I work a nine-to-five communications job in my home town, I am surrounded by people I know, with all of the standard amenities I enjoy (primarily plainly aesthetic coffee shops). My life is pretty comfortable, and yet, the number of things still causing me stress has remained the same.
Despite significant improvements in my day-to-day comfort and security, I still am not living as carefree as I imagined. This is the harsh reality of a comfortable life, as it simply does not exist.
The Demands of Discomfort
“Freedom demands discomfort” — Mark Manson, Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope.
In Mark Mason’s recent book, he describes why a utopian society can never be achieved, referencing the work of the noted sociologist, Emilie Durkiem. He argues that even though we are certainly capable of creating a comfortable life, we are incapable of living without discomfort.
In other words, the more comfortable we get, the easier it is for us to find issues in our life.
If you look around today, it isn’t hard to find people creating discomfort out of nothing. For example, my friend works at a walk-in clinic and he tells me how at least five times a day, people walk in thinking they have the coronavirus. For context, I live in a city, in the middle of Canada where the risk of this virus is zero to none.
People are comfortably safe from this condition, and yet, they build the discomfort in our heads that they might have it.
Edit: I want to recognize that since writing this article, Covid-19 has escalated to a level where it is a very real threat. I was wrong about its severity from the outset, and I want to acknowledge this fact.
Basically, our brain seeks out discomfort and will draw any bridges it needs to get there. Therefore, our pursuit of a completely comfortable life can never be achieved.
Personally, I no longer deal with the uneasiness about people yelling at me in the streets; instead, I get the same level of stress from work meetings or going in to renew my gym membership. Objectively, meetings are much more comfortable than strangers yelling at me, but my brain has scaled to accommodate a much smaller comfort zone, so comfortable situations have suddenly become riddled with stress.
In other words, your discomfort is a sunk cost. No matter how we attempt to avoid bad things, our brain will always make something out to be scarier than maybe it actually is in reality.
So given we are at a sunk cost for feeling uncomfortable, why not put yourself out there? If you are already going to feel discomfort, why not utilize that discomfort and push yourself? According to a study done on novelty exploration, there is a dopamine trigger in our brain that can only be activated by trying new things.
Living a comfortable life is not satisfying. You will not only be missing out on building your life with new experiences, but you will also be chasing a level of comfort that simply does not exist. Even if you like routine, we still need to be seeking ways to push ourselves into new and exciting experiences.
The world is a scary place, and no matter what you do, it is going to remain that way. The best thing you can do is utilize this knowledge, and push yourself to experiment.
Become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and suddenly the world will open up.
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