Sometimes our closest friends can turn out to be not so friendly after all. That appears to be the case with an amigo few of us would ever question is a true bud and something we can hardly live without: comfort. The excessive pursuit of this commodity has been at the center of more than a few credit ratings going over the cliff in recent years, has fueled a host of unsustainable products and behavior, convinced many of us that luxury surroundings or designer labels will make everything better and kept a number of us from stepping outside entertainment centers to do the uncomfortable things that make us healthy and satisfied.
Exercise hurts. Comfort foods feel good. Learning a new skill takes effort. Crashing on the Barcalounger doesn't. A budget vacation requires us to figure things out for ourselves, which fuels competence, a core need. The luxury vacation takes care of everything, except our brains and wallets, but at least we've lived like kings for a few days.
As marketers have known since the days of toga sales, humans love their creature comforts. Tempur-pedic beds and cinema-sized TVs are nice, but researchers tell us we're a lot happier when we can tear ourselves away from what makes us feel cozy. It turns out that what our brains and bodies really want isn't comfort. It's engagement. Comfort is your enemy.
It's not that we need to be Spartans and forage for dinner. It's just that we're designed to be more than bystanders to our lives and venture beyond the familiar, so much so that the body's party drug, dopamine, is triggered by the mere anticipation of something novel. It's evolution's way of prodding novelty-seeking behavior. We're also equipped with another internal incentive to break out of the comfort default: habituation. We get tired of the same old, same old. A key element of sustainable happiness is varying how we do what we do to prevent the boredom of habituation.
The problem is that we also have an overactive safety reflex and prefer the pleasure at hand, because we aren't very good at delayed gratification. That comes from a time when we didn't know where the next meal was coming from. Marketers have made the comfort reflex even more of an autopilot, extolling its ease and status and making it synonymous with the good life.
The science shows, though, that it's just the opposite of the velvet cocoon that gratifies us. Our core psychological needs are satisfied not by how comfy we feel but by breaking out of the force field of routine. The two key factors in long-term life satisfaction are novelty and challenge, says brain scientist Gregory Berns of Emory University School of Medicine. The plush life doesn't make us happy because, like all external metrics, it doesn't do anything for you internally, where the real arbiters of gratification live.
The more we chase external comfort, the more uncomfortable we are on the inside. Inactivity, passive lifestyles and spectating follow the pursuit of comfort and take their toll. An extra hour of TV watching can increase the risk of death by 11 percent, a study led by Australian researcher David Dunston found (1). Watching TV more than four hours a day is associated with an 80 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Alpa Patel, of the American Cancer Society, who studied 120,000 people and their sitting habits, says that people who sit too much cut two years off their life (2).
"Inactivity" studies show that excess sitting can be lethal. In the seated position, electrical activity in the body plunges, along with good cholesterol levels and calorie-burning, which drops to one-third less than when you're walking. Insulin effectiveness plummets, and the risk of diabetes climbs. As many as 50 million Americans are leading sedentary lives, according to University of South Carolina exercise science professor Steven Blair, who has called the inactivity problem the biggest public health risk of the 21st century. Through his work with the Aerobics Center Longitude Study, he discovered that poor fitness accounted for 16 percent of deaths and that women who were fit were 55 percent less likely to die of breast cancer than inactive women (3).
The comfort zone is just as nasty for your brain. Feed it the same data over and over because it's safe and routine, and your brain neurons literally stop noticing it. They're programmed to pay attention to what's new. This is how we wind up with years that are a complete blank in retrospect. We haven't done anything different, so we don't remember them. If you want a memorable life, the research is very clear: You have to live a life worth remembering.
Without mental stimulation dendrites, connections between brain neurons that keep information flowing, shrink or disappear altogether. Active learning and physical exercise increase dendrite networks and also increase the brain's regenerating capacity, known as plasticity.
"Neglect of intense learning leads plasticity systems to waste away," says Norman Doidge in "The Brain That Changes Itself." Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of plasticity research, adds that going beyond the familiar is essential to brain health: "It's the willingness to leave the comfort zone that is the key to keeping the brain new."
We cling to comfort zones because they offer perceived safety and keep the threat of change from our doorsteps. And they're easy. They require no effort. We're led to believe that non-exertion is the way to happiness, but our brains hate being on idle, looking into the window of life. We wind up with a hollowed-out life of spectating and learned helplessness, without the initiating skills essential to self-worth and a well-lived life. It's self-determined actions and experiences that provide the gratification we need. Your core psychological needs -- autonomy, competence and relatedness, the social connection -- can only be satisfied through participation, not cushy observation.
I met a host of folks across the country en route to "Don't Miss Your Life," my book on the power of engaged experience, who managed to break out of the comfort cage. They did it by pushing their respective envelopes in an area we would never expect is key to life fulfillment: skill-building off the professional track, by developing passions.
Southern California accountant Marty Herman broke through major comfort zones with salsa dancing. He can now perform without nerves in front of a crowd, and salsa connected him to a host of new friends. By following her passion for rock climbing despite a fear of heights, lawyer Sara Lingafelter discovered strengths she didn't know she had. She wound up breaking out of the legal world that was safe but unsatisfying and landing her dream job, as a social media specialist for a major outdoor products company. Her work and life are now aligned, thanks to her willingness to push through several comfort zones.
Remarkable things happen when we step outside the "comfort" of our self-limitations. It turns out that building competence at activities outside the job realm is one of the most effective ways to do that. We satisfy our core needs better through engaged recreational experiences than anywhere else. The activities are autonomous, you build skills that make you feel competent and you connect with others, satisfying all your core needs. It's no wonder humans are at their happiest when they're involved in engaging leisure activities, as a study led by Princeton's Alan Krueger and Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Alan Kahneman found (4).
The comfort crutch locks out engaged participation, the active ingredient in gratification, and locks in the biggest impediment to an extraordinary life: fear. We're here to venture, challenge ourselves and grow. It's built into the biochemistry. Comfort is allergic to the forward progress your brain neurons crave. The goal isn't to avoid lifting a finger on this planet, but to dig in with both hands to the wisdom of uncomfortable places.
Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, spirit and skills of activating the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer and coach at Work to Live.
1. David Dunston. Television Viewing Time and Mortality: The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study (AusDiab), D.W. Dunstan, E.L.M. Barr, G.N. Healy, J. Salmon, J.E. Shaw, B. Balkau, D.J. Magliano, A.J. Cameron, P.Z. Zimmet, and N. Owen, Circulation, 2010.
2. Alpa Patel. Leisure Time Spent Sitting in Relation to Total Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of US Adults, America Journal of Epidemiology, 2010. Alpa Patel, Leslie Bernstein, Anusila Deka, Heather Spencer Feigelson, Peter T. Campbell, Susan M. Gapstur, Graham A. Colditz, and Michael J. Thun
3. Steven Blair, Aerobics Center Longitude Study.
4. Alan Krueger. National Time Accounting: The Currency of Life. Alan Krueger, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone. Working Papers, Princeton Univ., 2008.