In living and working in California’s two biggest cities, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been in the periphery of each respective primary industry, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and have seen how the attitudes of each industry permeates into the culture of each city. After listening to Michael Easter’s The Comfort Crisis, I recognize that in living in these cities, I know exactly what the comfort crisis looks like – I live it, much to my chagrin, and I see our world slowly turning into the horror of Wall-E: Angelenos being unable to cope with an inch of rain one per year, mouth breathing San Francisco techies pacifying their boredom on the MUNI with constant input of YouTube news clips, myself being annoyed, ironically enough, when my WiFi causes my Headspace meditation to buffer – all symptoms of an underlying issue outlined in The Comfort Crisis.
In The Comfort Crisis, Easter illustrates how in the modern world, the “progress” we have made in recent years may actually have unintended consequences causing modern humans to live with an underlying baseline of low-level stress, causing us to be more chronically unhealthy, overweight, unathletic, anxious, and depressed. The landscape of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, among others, actually contribute to these anxieties, as they don’t mimic the soothing patterns found in nature. Furthermore, much of the work prevalent in the big industries, particularly in urban areas, requires sitting in front of a computer for a minimum of 40 hours per week (and more likely upwards of 60 hours per week). Even though our work requires little – if any – physical exertion, the mentally taxing nature of these jobs drives us to rest at the end of a long work day, which often looks like plopping down on the couch, kicking our feet up, and staring at yet another screen until it is time to go to bed, where we lay down once again on a cushioned mattress. Easter cites that many of us spend approximately 90% of our time inside in air conditioned, fluorescent rooms, even those of us who do venture outside or to the gym to exercise.
Take our jobs, for example. For me, after a long day of scaring at a screen, I feel uncomfortable, but not in the rewarding way I would during a long run. One might argue that having the sorts of specialized jobs in niche industries that exist today is actually a sign of progress. After all, most jobs these days don’t come with a risk of losing a limb or contracting black lung. Working in communications, for example, doesn’t hold the same existential risk as working in a mine shaft in the 1800s would. Furthermore, in America at least, most of us don’t have to engage in existential tasks that take up most of the day, like hiking down to a natural spring to collect water, for example, as our basic needs are essentially a given. Since most of us do not have to engage in very clearly uncomfortable tasks just to survive; and because the benefits of our diversified, industrialized economy are so obvious, it is easy to ignore the detriments of not having to face certain types of uncomfortable situations like physical exertion or spending time in the elements on a daily basis.
This is not to say that we do not face some types of “uncomfortable” situations in the modern day; obviously people go through interpersonal struggles, face financial stress, or encounter real dangers in the city. But, it has become increasingly clear in the work of Easter and others that certain discomforts – hunger, physical exertion, boredom, uncomfortable thoughts – are things we have managed to eliminate from our daily lives, and continue to avoid out of fear or perhaps pure laziness. For instance, many fear overexercising or under-eating, preventing them from running six days a week instead of three days a week, or causing them to eat in a caloric surplus; this is despite the fact that hunter gatherers took multiples more than our arbitrary minimum of 10,000 steps per day and often went significant stretches of time without eating, and still survived (and although their life expectancy was lower than the life expectancy of the modern American, much of modern medicine and lower infant mortality rates are contributing to this shift).
It is frustrating that that our culture seems to allow or even encourage being physically lazy, prioritizing being in the office, for example, over taking spending quality time in nature. The discomfort that is commonly accepted or encouraged is the discomfort we feel sitting in a cubicle in a frumpy office chair, stuffing our bodies with convenient, hyper-palatable foods. Avoiding the beneficial uncomfortable situations thanks to our largely cushy livelihoods has contributed to many of the challenges we face in our society. And though it can be easy to blame our capitalist system for the Comfort Crisis (heck, I just did it), the lack of personal accountability in facing necessary discomforts has made it difficult for individuals to solve their own problems. Like Jordan Peterson has pointed out on occasion, individuals having their lives in order positively impacts the rest of the world; the reverse is also true, meaning every individual who stubbornly avoids beneficial discomforts out of laziness or “self care” not only does a disservice to themselves, but to their broader community. How can we expect the entire culture to shift to prioritizing beneficial discomforts if we cannot do so on our own? Holding ourselves accountable to necessary doses of discomfort, such as facing our inner demons, spending time in the elements, physically exerting, and allowing ourselves to feel hunger at times, is a concrete way each and every one of us can individually contribute to solving communal issues, such as the mental health and obesity crises.
With regard to the individual responsibility to improve one’s life through facing discomfort, I believe one must dedicate oneself to having a good life rather than simply having a “successful” career. For example, in The Comfort Crisis Easter highlights Bhutan, a country that prioritizes its citizens’ happiness over GDP. As Easter points out, although the country is not as economically developed as countries like the US, the Bhutanese leadership’s logic rests on the notion that because GDP is a means to ensure the people’s happiness, it makes more sense to focus on happiness outright. It reminded me of a story told on the Headspace podcast that describes fishermen in a small village in Mexico; tourists ask the fisherman what they do with their day. The fishermen respond that they fish for a bit in the morning, go home in the afternoon for a siesta, and spend the night drinking and eating with friends and family. A Harvard Business School graduate announces his credentials and tells the fisherman that they need to fish for longer hours so they can make more money and continually expand their business so they can make enough money to retire, and thus be able to fish for a bit in the morning, go home in the afternoon for a siesta, and spend the night drinking and eating with friends and family.
The follies of prioritizing career over overall life satisfaction (which includes one’s health and relationships) manifests in the attitude of putting off living our lives until retirement, never taking time out of our days to explore the land beyond our comfort zones. It is easy to get into a rhythm of rolling out of bed, into the car, and into a meeting, repeating this pattern and living an endlessly frustrating existence with chronic pain and stress for forty years; and conversely, it is quite challenging to wake up before the sun rises, meditate, exercise, journal, read, and spend quality time with a loved one before going to work. These days as “flexible work” blurs the line between life and work, it can be challenging to say no to being constantly plugged in and opting instead for moments of boredom or silence that may serve us more in the long run.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that The Comfort Crisis made me take a good, hard look at my priorities, something I hope others will do, too. As a recent college graduate, I have continually been told that the most important or interesting thing about you is what you do from nine to five – not your interests, how you treat your friends and family, or how you fare in challenging situations. As a woman, I’ve also been fed the idea of the “girl boss,” a hardass corporate woman who chooses to pursue a career over anything else, because “men are trash” and “it’s unethical to bring children into this horrible world.” Personally, I don’t want to only be known for my career, but rather for who I am as a person. Sure, my career is fulfilling, but not nearly as satisfying to my very core as taking a hike in nature, spending some quiet time meditating, or pushing myself past my perceived physical limits. While I could sit here and complain about traditional office work,The Comfort Crisis is an important reminder that we all need to be individually responsible for pushing ourselves to take action and do the hard stuff that we know will make us better in order to better the world around us.