One of the first newsletters of 2023 (or maybe it was one of the last newsletters of 2022) that I read was Mark Manson’s newsletter about choosing happiness over comfort. The phrase “happiness over comfort” stuck with me. I memorialized it, as I memorialize all ideas I want to keep top of mind, by writing it on a sticky note, and it has become one of my commitments for the year.
If I’m being honest, though, I’m still in the process of working out what this phrase really means for me. I expect this will be a year-long unfolding because it’s so tempting for me to take this to the extreme. In the extreme, happiness over comfort could mean:
- Pushing myself to the point of injury during a workout
- Pushing myself to the point of burnout with my work
- Ignoring the “uncomfortable” signals and red flags I’m getting from others and from my own body
So, while I’m choosing happiness over comfort, I also have to remember that I shouldn’t take discomfort as a sign that I’m on the road to happiness.
I’m also operating from the hypothesis that happiness is best found with a gentle approach. And while it may take some tough love and a whole dose of courage for me to push beyond my comfort zone (is it possible to be intensely gentle?), I need to keep my tendency to jump from one extreme to the other firmly in check.
What follows are some of my reflections on happiness over comfort.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
I recently finished reading The Gap and the Gain by Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy (my first book of 2023). At the very beginning of the book, they point out that this one phrase in the Declaration of Independence defines all of American psychology and culture: We have an unalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Sullivan and Hardy go on to argue that “the pursuit of happiness” frames happiness as unattainable. Jefferson (borrowing language from John Locke, by the way, whose original line was “life, liberty, and property”) has set us up for failure. “By saying happiness is something we’re pursuing, the direct implication is that we don’t have it now.” This, Sullivan and Hardy suggest, makes us wildly unhappy and the rest of the book sets out to show us a different path.
When we see the source of our happiness as an ideal off in the distance, we’re living in the “GAP.” When, instead, we focus on measuring our progress against our previous selves, we’re living in the “GAIN.” And living in the GAIN is a much better place to be. It makes happiness not only attainable, but attained, according to Sullivan and Hardy.
Happiness vs. Comfort
If Sullivan and Hardy are right, then in one sense, I’ve already accomplished my commitment. There’s really nothing more to be done. I can look back at my past almost seven years in business and bask in the warm glow of how far I’ve come. I understand this living in the GAIN business well enough and I think it’s a good idea, but I worry that Sullivan and Hardy risk confusing comfort with happiness.
It’s certainly more comfortable to measure my progress by looking at my gains than by looking at the gaps, but when I look back on the moments in my life when I’ve been the happiest, they weren’t the most comfortable. They were moments where I met challenges and came out on the other side. From reinventing myself after deciding to leave academia to finding my way to my first ghostwriting clients to figuring out how to step into my role as CEO, angst and trepidation have often led to a lot of fulfillment. In other words, my happy moments felt kind of “gappy.” And I think this is because a truly happy life includes some discomfort.
In fact, I think one of the biggest differences between happiness and comfort is that we can be happy while in pursuit of attaining a goal that will make us even happier, whereas when we’re in pursuit of comfort, we aren’t comfortable in that moment (or else why would we be pursuing comfort in the first place?).
It’s easy to believe, when we’re drowning in bills, emails, and to-dos, that happiness would be a life free of stress. But often what stands in the way of our happiness is actually avoiding dealing with uncomfortable experiences.
Perhaps we’d like to go after that promotion that would give us a sizable raise to help pay off some of those bills, but applying for that promotion would require dusting off our resume and going through an uncomfortable interview process.
Or maybe we could make our inbox more manageable by choosing only to process email during a two-hour block of time in the day, but we’re afraid to set the boundary with our supervisor or co-workers because it might be uncomfortable.
Or perhaps we could delegate more of our to-dos to others, but we don’t want to have the uncomfortable conversations or take the time to train them to take some of our tasks off our plates.
What would happen if we simply accepted that discomfort is inevitable? That might stop us from confusing comfort with happiness and be more open to trying to be happy with whatever life throws at us.
What Happiness Over Comfort Means Now
Earlier I said that I’m still in the process of working out what this phrase really means for me. But for now, here are some concrete ways I’m applying this mantra.
1. I’m turning toward difficult situations or experiences with curiosity.
This means recognizing when a moment is uncomfortable, pausing, and asking whether the discomfort is a necessary part of getting what I ultimately want. In the past, I’ve hidden from or ignored uncomfortable situations and experiences. But I think that turning toward what I’m avoiding or dreading will be game-changing for me in so many ways.
2. Accepting that discomfort is a lot like eating my vegetables.
I don’t enjoy eating many vegetables (I never have), but I know they are an important part of a healthy diet. I can see life’s challenges as my daily serving of mental veggies and embrace them as an important part of my happiness, rather than as obstacles standing in my way. There will always be the uncomfortable, unpleasant stuff to deal with mixed in among the beautiful and pleasant. I’m taking intentional moments to reflect on everything that’s going well even as I shadow box with all my demons.
3. Pushing through even though I’m tired, when I know checking that thing off my list will give me some satisfaction.
Getting this blog article finished is a good example here. I’m tired, but I know that if I don’t finish this article tonight, it won’t be ready for the newsletter I want to send tomorrow and if I skip my newsletter tomorrow, then I will have only sent one newsletter this month, and I’ve committed to sending two newsletters each month, so I need to push through and get this article written.
4. Not pushing through when I know it’s time to back off because I’m on the edge of burnout.
Conversely, I can imagine moments when pushing to get my blog article written at a certain time will push me over the edge and into burnout. In these moments, “happiness over comfort” will mean backing off and letting go of an arbitrary commitment like sending two newsletters each month. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that there’s no happiness in burnout. There’s no happiness in pushing past your limitations. And there’s no happiness in ignoring boundaries to meet others’ expectations.
It’s also worth pointing out in this context how comfortable we can be with discomfort. Following rules, arbitrary or not, should never trump listening to our burnout radar. But if we take “happiness over comfort” to its extreme, then that’s exactly the kind of thing we might do. When we are used to pushing ourselves to the edge of burnout, we may not even experience it as discomfort.
This is another reason getting curious about difficult situations and experiences is such an important habit to cultivate. It helps us to separate out discomfort that’s a part of happiness from discomfort that’s all GAP and no GAIN.
5. Being more intentional and less impulsive in what I consume (in all meanings of the word).
Finally, one place where I absolutely sacrifice happiness for comfort is in what I consume. Social media, Netflix, YouTube, gossip, sugar – I’m looking at you. These are some of the easiest ways for me to avoid discomfort and some of the hardest habits to shift. But I know that the first step is being intentional, rather than impulsive about everything I consume.
So, here’s hoping that you do more of the things that make you happy this year, even – or maybe especially – if that means you also experience more discomfort.
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