The Art of Purposeful Discomfort


Ah yes, that warm fuzzy word.  Even just saying it out loud, my body takes an involuntary breath of fresh air.  We have been chasing comfort ever since Caveman Bob figured out that putting his head on a rock, as opposed to the floor - gave him a much better night's sleep.

In fact, one could argue that every single effort we have made in ‘civilising’ the world has been in pursuit of comfort.  After we figured out how to consistently get the food, water and air we needed to survive – we turned towards trying to make the rest of our surroundings just a little bit better every day.

And so, thanks to the tireless efforts of millions of people you will never hear about, nor care about, you probably are reading this post in a temperature-controlled room, on a comfy chair, sipping from a cup of coffee, smelling great, in clothes that fit you perfectly.

(Did I mention how good you look today?)

Totally comfortable.  ContentHappy?

Hmm… Now you aren’t so sure.  You can’t deny your comfort – after all, you aren’t roaming the Savannah hunting for your food.  However, contrary to popular belief, comfort (or luxury in its extreme) doesn’t actually equal happiness.  It is much more complicated than that.

In fact - I want to propose that comfort is harming us every second we enjoy it.

I know, I know.  Living in a country like South Africa, brought up in a privileged, middle-class family – it reeks of overcompensation when I make a comment like that.  Don’t jump to conclusions.  Bare with me here.

A Kick-Ass Pyramid

Maslow, an American psychologist, famously coined a hierarchy on which human needs were prioritised from physiological needs right up to self-actualisation.  This kick-ass pyramid that he created has been used in almost every area of intellectual thought I can think of and seems to ring true when stress-tested against any unique tale of woe.  It's a truly versatile model for human behaviour.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Comfort fits in just above the physiological rung, in the safety zone.  It’s the next step we go after, subsequent to having secured enough food, water and air to survive as a basic human.  Our desire for comfort is almost instinctual.

Every advancement, whether technological, intellectual or spiritual, can be attributed in some way to the desire to be more comfortable.  And rightly so.  If our ambitions as a race are to continue to exist (As I hope they are...) then the attainment of total comfort is a logical goal.  It gives us staying power and security.

What we failed to forsee however (as we have consistently done since the beginning of time) is that our problems are only traded up – they aren’t eliminated.

Trading Up Our Problems

It’s tempting to believe that once we have mastered life and reached the highest echelons of our respective fields then we will be stress-free and completely blissful.

It is tempting to believe that once we are rich – we can leave the issues of the working man behind and enter a period of genuine leisure, without a care in the world.

It is tempting to believe that once we have converted our country from a 3rd world nation to a 1st world nation – then our problems are over.

But you and I know - that simply isn’t the case.

We have all seen and heard enough anecdotal evidence to show that this wishful thinking is nothing if not naïve.  We don’t “solve” our problems, we just trade them up for different ones.

For example, if you drag yourself out of poverty and into middle-class – perhaps you trade hunger for the stress of a white-collar job.  Perhaps you trade a broken home for the social intricacies of trying to keep up with the Jones’es.  You trade your problems up.

Now, I’m not saying that the problems mentioned above are equal, or close, or anything like that – that isn’t for me to decide.  All I am saying is that the problems shift.  They are different in a physical sense, an emotional sense and an intellectual sense.  They provide different challenges and obstacles that require different skills and mindsets.

And to bring it full circle – that’s the most basic tenet of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Just when you figure out that finding food isn’t so bad (I must be rich!) your brain rocks you back to earth and reminds you: “But why don’t you have that car?  Mrs Jones does and you don’t – so you must be inferior.”  That little voice in your brain brings about a new set of insecurities and challenges.

And so on and so on and so on…

We trade and trade and trade, upwards and upwards.  Our problems never disappear.

Right.  Got it?  Now back to the matter at hand.

Total Comfort is a Problem

So we’ve optimised everything to provide the best lifestyle that money can buy.  We live in a large house full of expensive machines, furniture and decorations – that make us feel, well oh so content!

That doesn’t mean we are happy though.

In fact – it can often mean the exact opposite.

Comfort, by its very nature – breeds complacency.  Naturally, that is the point!

When we are comfortable, we turn off our ‘survival instincts’ because everything is all-right.  We can turn off the metaphorical radar and the motion detectors – we can relax.  We become complacent with our own survival.  And that’s ok – because that was our goal anyway – to ensure our survival.

Complacency is a real first-world issue.  The lower you are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the less you can afford to even dream of being complacent.  Complacency is one of those problems we have traded up into – it is another rung on the ladder.

In trying to wrap my head around the idea of complacency, I tend to always come back to it’s opposite (at least in my mind) – that of hunger.  For the first time in this post I don’t use hunger in the literal sense, but rather in the metaphorical one.

Purely anecdotally, I feel that the more comfortable we become, the less hungry we are.  The more content we become, the less we want to push forward and the more we want to rest on our laurels.

That’s what I’m scared of.

In my own limited personal experience, it’s amazing to behold the difference in mindset and world-view between people who were born into excess and wealth, compared to those born into struggling environments.  I can’t throw blame either way, because our world-view is often dictated by our background – but nonetheless the differences are clear for anyone to see.

This is what scares me though:

If I can see this difference, clear as day, in other people – where is my blindspot?

I am a privileged, white, educated man – with every comfort I could dream of.  Am I complacent?


Ok.  Ok.  What do we do about it?

If you’re still with me at this point, we’ve already discussed how we trade up our problems.  We’ve already seen that comfort is one of those desires we have chased, but hasn’t actually given us the fulfillment we thought it would.  It hasn’t guaranteed happiness.

What we have conceded though, is that it breeds complacency – which is not a good thing when you want to find meaning in your life.  It drives you away from where you want to go!

So let’s tackle it head on.

There is a rather simple antidote to be honest.  Be uncomfortable.

That’s it.  Simple as that.  Well thanks Barry – here I am, 1200 words in and you’ve brought me back to the realm of the painstakingly obvious!

I still have an ace up my sleeve however, because I said that the answer was simple.  I didn’t say it was easy.

Purposeful Discomfort

It’s easy to talk about this and a whole lot more difficult to actually put the theory into action.  It’s difficult to turn away from something comfortable and throw yourself down the pyramid, in fact it’s illogical!  No rational person would do that!

But remember, rational people – don’t change the world.

So we need to do something extraordinary.  We need to leave our comfort at the door and jump onto what Vusi Thembekwayo calls ‘The Edge of Chaos’.

By taking conscious action to push yourself out of your ‘comfort zone’ and into the dark unknown – you force yourself to use those survival instincts that you forgot you had and you allow yourself room to grow.

That's where you find meaning and fulfillment.  In the journey of taking on new experiences and new pursuits - you awaken your primal survival instincts and that's when you feel alive.

Have you been taking your comfort for granted?

Do me a favour here - take a look at yourself honestly and ask yourself - when was the last time you did something risk/dangerous/exciting/potentially embarrassing?

If it's been a while - make today that day.