At Inspired, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to be happier. Our chosen (and obvious) method of feeling good is typically by living more and doing more of what inspires us – which in turn allows us to create more impact and feel awesome about it. We’re also real people though, and we get that maybe the single biggest priority for our generation is ease. I won’t lie to you and say I’d call Domino’s instead of ordering off Grubhub if it meant I’d get a discount. I wouldn’t – I’d stick with ordering off the app, human-interaction-free, in the safety and comfort of my apartment. While plenty of us have enough phone anxiety to forego a pizza discount for the sake of convenience, the increasing volume of these little conveniences in our lives are building a creeping resistance to discomfort in us. And according to quite a few clinical studies, it’s detrimental to our overall happiness in the long-run.
The Cost of “Easy”
In the notorious Marshmallow Test study of the late ‘80s, kids were given the choice of immediately eating a single marshmallow or waiting a bit longer and receiving several marshmallows instead. Theoretically, the ones who wait will be more successful because they’ve learned to delay gratification for bigger rewards. The problem is, we now tend to choose those longer-term rewards in our professional lives and save ease (instant gratification) for the personal. We hit a hard-earned milestone at work, then go home to relax by putting the entire last season of Queer Eye on autoplay. Both nice, but not same-depth-of-personal-fulfillment nice. And while we seem to understand stepping outside of comfort zones is necessary to professional productivity, when we phone it in on our personal lives, the comfort of “constant routine” actually dulls our ability to feel real happiness, according to Forbes. When you’re going through the motions of your comfort-zone routine, the article claims, you’re actually “tuning out much of your life” and physiologically failing to encode meaningful memory. Dopamine release, it turns out, requires novel experiences and stimuli.
The Burnout Problem
So, great. You’ll just take up public speaking classes or skysurfing in your free time, and everything will be happy and good. (Although, science says even the dopamine payoff from hurling yourself out of a plane will theoretically lessen over time.) The problem is, constant effort and discomfort just won’t produce enough of a reward to sustain that motivation in every aspect of life. Burnout is real, and no amount of boundary-pushing positive thinking will stop you from crashing in front of the TV some nights for a dose of low-reward contentment.
One increasingly common example is activist burnout, where constant (and often necessary) discomfort from social justice advocacy – something that can deliver that deeper sense of fulfillment – takes over and fully depletes that former passion and energy. The most universal takeaway from the activist burnout narrative, though, is balance. More and more common in the conversation is the priority of productive discomfort by learning how to manage stress; essentially, optimizing your own effectiveness by taking it easy sometimes – and making sure you can sustain that longer-term sense of fulfillment.
Ultimately, if you choose to do something a little uncomfortable because you believe in the long-term reward, burning yourself out right off the bat is probably the best way to make sure you never reap that benefit of deeper happiness.
How to Make Discomfort Work for You
Balance looks different for everybody because discomfort looks different for everybody. If maximizing long-term fulfillment is your priority, the steps toward deeper happiness depend on introspection:
1. First, be brutally honest with yourself. Is joining that half-marathon training team because you want to get healthier going to burn you out immediately? Then start way smaller. For some people, jogging a mile everyday is going to be that initial burn-out point. Sustainable progress only comes from starting somewhere realistic, and, if jogging a mile everyday is a no-go, I can tell you that starting too big is Not. Going. To. Work.
2. Make little discomforts routine. I know, based on everything I just said, that this is an oxymoron. But that’s part of striking a sustainable balance, right? Set an intention to do one (small and achievable) uncomfortable thing each day, even if it’s just a break in your typical routine. Find a new book to read instead of Netflix one night of the week. Strike up a conversation with that quiet coworker you don’t really know. Make a damn phone call. (Phone calls, sadly, are one of those things that improve exponentially with practice.)
3. Figure out what maximal fulfillment looks like for you. For most people, the deepest sense of long-term happiness comes from knowing you’ve made an impact. For the justice-minded, challenge yourself to get involved with community organizers. For others, take some time out of your week to hang with your younger cousins and teach them to play guitar. Volunteer your time or donate to a cause you care about, if you have the means. Or just do a few things you used to love when you weren’t feeling burnt out. Maybe try a new restaurant, get some rock climbing passes, or visit the art museum, and use an app like Inspired that turns many of those things into impact for free. Make a personal development plan: create a little bit of positive impact everyday.
Discomfort does not have to be a Herculean task. Getting happier and feeling that personal growth can be as simple as choosing the slightly-less-easy option in a sea of convenience. Sustainability is the real secret. But seriously, if you really want to order Grubhub, please order Grubhub.