Your Insatiable Need for Comfort is Killing You

In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.
— Rainer Maria Rilke

We are addicted to comfort and have deployed our prodigious intelligence and ingenuity in the service of bending the natural world to our will. In the process we have forgotten that what has made us such a resilient species are the hundreds of thousands of years we've spent adapting to an environment which doesn't give a rat's ass about our survival much less our comfort.

With each successive generation we've gotten softer. We've come to rely on technology to create the perfect micro-climate in our homes, offices and cars, ergonomic office chairs to coax us into sitting for 10-12 hours a day and time- and labor-saving machines that clean our dishes, clothes and cars.

We live in an "on demand" world where almost anything we desire is available to us via next-day air.

Our refrigerators and pantries and freezers are bursting with calorie-dense but nutrient-poor snacks, drinks and other foods, ensuring that we can eat around the clock should only our hearts desire to. One wonders if we would even be here to bemoan our plight if our paleolithic ancestors had known such pernicious abundance.

We call this progress, and in some sense it is; we no longer have to venture out into the forest, axe in hand, to fell trees to build and then heat our homes, or walk a mile to the nearest stream to wash our clothes or collect cooking and drinking water for the day, or sit in the snow, camouflaged, waiting for prey to wander within striking distance.

But this "progress," this relentless march toward convenience and comfort, is killing us slowly. We are understimulating our biology, failing to trigger the evolutionary adaptations we have developed over millennia to secure our survival in a harsh, capricious world.

Amusing and consuming ourselves to death. (WALL-E image copyright of Pixar Animation Studios)

Amusing and consuming ourselves to death. (WALL-E image copyright of Pixar Animation Studios)

This is the world most of us live in. Comfort and convenience are commodities that we now take as our birthright, the well-deserved reward for working hard, a privilege we've earned just by being fortunate enough to be alive at this time in history.

But this privilege is making us fat and sick. This privilege is undermining the potency of our immune systems. This privilege makes us anxious about change, especially if that change threatens our comfort.

The antidote to this ubiquitous, institutionalized comfort is to strategically and systematically stress our bodies and our minds. There are several ways to do this:

Cold therapy: immersion in ice cold water stimulates the creation of brown adipose tissue (BAT), or brown fat, which is the only mammalian tissue whose sole purpose is thermogenesis (making heat). Exposure to cold, it seems, stimulates a gene that converts white fat to brown fat, which, unlike its pale cousin actually burns calories and is associated with a reduced risk of obesity and diabetes. 

Load-bearing exercises: the stress placed on your joints, muscles and connective tissue during routine daily movement is not sufficient to build strength, mobility and aerobic capacity to spare. Training under load ensures you're able to perform when the need arises.

Create adversity: inoculate yourself against that which causes you the most anxiety by curating opportunities to confront your demons. Mindfully prepare a plan for how you will respond, what you will do to keep yourself calm, how you will maintain control of the only thing within your control: your own reaction. Practice until your mind is rewired.

Take the "long cut" (i.e., the opposite of the short cut): make things less convenient, not more. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator; get off the bus or subway one stop early and walk to your destination; park at the opposite end of the parking lot from where you're shopping; do the dishes by hand instead of loading up the dishwasher.

Fasting: we can artificially recreate the conditions of our biological heritage -- the cycles between times of plenty and times of scarcity -- by using calorie restriction to stimulate the biological adaptations which keep us healthy at a cellular level. Prolonged fasting (under the supervision of a professional) resets metabolism, cleans up damaged cell material and stimulates stem cell rejuvenation, bolstering the immune system.

Comfort is a choice. Understand what you might be sacrificing by becoming over-reliant on the conveniences in your life and make decisions, mindfully, about the costs you're willing to accept and which costs are simply too high. Where possible (and feasible!) make decisions which support your health and well-being and which prepare your mind, body and spirit for the challenges that await you.