Comfort, when excessive, ends up becoming an obstacle. The richest and most powerful men in history, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon or Louis XIV, were unable to enjoy even a fraction of the comforts to which much of the Western population has access today.
In fact, we work much less than the generations that came before us. In the last 150 years, the average annual hours of a worker in the main Western countries has been cut in half, from 3,000 working hours a year to just over 1,500.
So why do we feel more and more overwhelmed and stressed? Why we don’t have time for anything and we are saturated with work? The problem is that we no longer have real problems. The problem is the excess of comfort.
Conceptual change induced by prevalence
In 2018, Daniel T. Gilbert and a group of psychologists from Harvard and Virginia Universities asked people to point out the blue dots. To do this, they were presented on a screen with 1,000 dots whose color varied from deep purple to blue.
The trick was that after 200 attempts, psychologists reduced the prevalence of blue dots for some of them.
Interestingly, although the frequency of the blue dots decreased, people continued to detect them. How was it possible?
The participants expanded their concept of blue to include points that they had previously excluded. At the end of the study, these people identified as blue points that were actually purple and that remained so for those participants who had not undergone the reduction in prevalence.
This psychological phenomenon is known as “conceptual change induced by prevalence”. In practice, we judge stimuli in a broader context, under the influence of other stimuli that surround them in space or that precede them in time.
For example, perceived aggressiveness naturally depends on the aggressiveness of other behaviors we are seeing or have witnessed. When the attacks decrease, if most behaviors are less aggressive than before, it is likely that we will change our concept of aggressiveness, which will lead us to classify as “aggressive” behaviors that would not be so in other conditions or contexts.
When the “signal” we’re looking for becomes rare – like the blue dots in the experiment – we react by broadening our definition of the signal, so we may end up finding it even when it’s not there. This phenomenon applies not only to color perception but also to our moral judgments. Therefore, when we experience fewer problems in our daily lives, we lower the threshold of what we consider to be “real problems.” And that, in itself, is already a problem.
The excess of comforts of modern Western society is reducing our tolerance for problems, setbacks and frustrations, so that the slightest discomfort, setback or difficulty is experienced as a problem. That means that even though the problems have objectively and drastically decreased, we still feel like we have a lot of problems because our threshold has decreased. Thus the excess of comfort leads us to experience discomfort.
If we don’t have problems, we invent them
Although many of today’s “problems” get pale in comparison to the problems of the past or to those faced by many people in less developed countries, they can cause a lot of suffering because they take over our minds and do not always have an immediate or concrete solution, like eating something when you’ve been hungry for several days.
Do you know what the paradox is? The more we protect ourselves, the more comforts we seek or the more distractions we crave to take us away from the discomfort that these problems cause, the more the threshold of what we consider problematic decreases and, therefore, the more our discomfort and suffering increases.
Excessive comforts prevent us from dealing with life’s little problems, thus limiting our opportunities to develop frustration to tolerance or resilience. As a result, we become weaker and more unhappy people, lacking the proper psychological tools to deal with life’s real problems.
Too much comfort transforms us into hypersensitive and hyperreactive people. It leaves us with emotions on the surface, ready to turn any setback into a drama that makes us lose sleep. As a result, it’s not uncommon for us to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied.
How do we get out of that loop?
The solution does not lie in becoming a masochist. Seeking comfort or trying to feel comfortable is not bad. In fact, it’s etched into our DNA. We have evolved to conserve our energy and avoid risks, where possible. The problem are the excesses.
“If we think of a typical day, it is largely governed by the inventions of the last 100 years. In the last century we have done nothing more than fill our homes with objects designed to simplify our life or make it more comfortable: increasingly soft and comfortable mattresses, electrical appliances that can replace us in many domestic tasks and the ubiquitous smartphone ready to satisfy all our needs or curiosities with a simple touch of the finger.
“What was once considered a luxury reserved for the lucky few is now the norm. And every time our comfort level increases, instead of being thankful we complain if for some reason we are forced to relive the old normal, which we now find unacceptable,” Michael Easter wrote in his book “The Comfort Crisis.”
As conditions have changed, our perception of problems has changed too, so that we now see things as difficulties that would not have been a few decades ago, such as running out of batteries or the food that we have ordered is not yet arrived. It is enough to remember that the fall of services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram causes waves of panic and triggers calls to psychologists.
Our resilience and risk tolerance level have declined dramatically. As hunter-gatherers, avoiding risk and failure at all costs could mean the difference between life and death. But this attitude of extreme caution applied today can lead us to the most absolute immobility, convinced that a professional or personal failure is equivalent to being attacked by a bear!
Instead, we must voluntarily expose ourselves to what we fear, find exhausting, difficult, or uncomfortable. One of the practices that Easter recommends is “misogi,” a term that derives from an ancient Shinto purification practice, that involved taking an annual bath under a waterfall of frozen water in the forests of Japan to purify, but also to test yourself.
Obviously, it is not necessary to replicate that challenge to the letter, the key lies in finding what represents a challenge for us and not only encourages us to timidly get out of our comfort zone but to leave it behind completely. This way we will be able to put ourselves to the test, we will regain confidence in our potentialities and, above all, we will readjust our perspective, so that we give each problem the place it deserves in our lives. No more no less.
Gilbert, D. T. et. Al. (2018) Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment. Science; 360(6396):1465-1467.
Easter, M. (2021) The comfort crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. Michael Easter. Nueva York: Rodale Books.