For a long time, I have believed that it was nobler to choose a direction based on moving toward a desired destination than on moving away from a current condition. Recently, as I have thought about this idea, I have recognized what I am calling “the comfort conundrum.”
I have become aware that I sometimes have difficulty taking meaningful action toward a change because my current situation is comfortable. It is not always clear to me if inertia or a deep longing for stability is behind the pull of the comfort of the known. Maybe, it is a little of both. I have a strong fear of being mired in inertia, but I acknowledge that it is possible that inertia plays into the equation. As I get older, I am also aware of a longing for stability with relationships, with career and with habits.
Stability feels honorable. Inertia feels repugnant. Where is the line between them?
When pondering taking a risk to move in a new direction, as I have said in another post, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It would be easier not to . . ..” That is not a good enough reason for me, though.
As Michael Bungay Stanier says,
“You need to get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar and efficient . . . as an old behavior.”
Or, as Simon Sinek would say, we must be clear on our “why.”
I realize that comfort is a blessing, a gift, something that so many people in the world do not have, in even the most basic ways. I am grateful for my comfort, but I am also troubled by the comfortable state of “good enough” because I am often just comfortable enough that I am not compelled to make a change. My pull to stay put can be a cyclical thing, varying with my current level of comfort or discomfort in a given situation.
This conundrum presents itself as ambivalence—a constant tug-of-war between the comfort of stability and the excitement of possibility.
Shortly before I left on a recent bike ride, I came across a simple method for quantifying happiness. I was reading the book The Upside to Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. The book, as a whole, did not resonate with me, but it mentions a 1965 study by Dr. Hadley Cantril, which used a simple image of a ladder to quantify happiness. Dr. Cantril asked study participants to visualize the ladder with numbers from zero to ten on each ascending rung. With the lowest rung being the worst possible life, and the highest being the best possible life, participants rated both where they currently placed themselves on the ladder and where they expected to be in five years. I used my time on that bike ride to consider this ladder exercise for myself. It was revelatory for me to this, and I came to the conclusion that there is a tipping point in the conundrum. It is easier to recognize this, if I look at different aspects of my life, rather than at my life, as a whole. Quantified, the conundrum zone seems to be five to seven. In this zone, I am “comfortable enough.” Stability is appealing here because it is known and safe, and there are things I really like about it. The tipping point, where it becomes too uncomfortable to remain, seems to be four or lower. As Anais Nin said,
“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Picturing my placement on the ladder in five years was an instructive wake-up call. It would be easy to remain in the zone of the comfortable known, around a six in certain areas of my life. But, when I consider that I would be in exactly the same situation in five years, without having moved the dial on certain things that I really do want to change or goals that I really do want to meet, I realize that I will have regret and disappointment.
Because the conundrum zone is comfortable enough, this recognition came with some sadness and even a little dread, but the fear of regret and disappointment in myself is even more persuasive than the draw of stability.
In certain areas, stability wins. In others, I know that I must dig deep for the courage to move out of the comfortable status quo, in order to avoid being in the same place (or possibly lower, due to regret and disappointment) on the ladder.
I also found it interesting to use this exercise retrospectively. It seems even more difficult than projecting into the future, but, looking back, where was I on the ladder—as a whole and in various aspects of my life—five years ago?
I haven’t solved the challenge of the comfort conundrum, but I have new insight on it, and on the necessity of overcoming it, after doing this exercise.
Although I don’t think this was the application that Dr. Cantril intended, the ladder exercise seems a useful tool for any of us who find ourselves struggling to achieve a goal or make a change that, on the surface, we believe we want. Paired with the idea of the comfort conundrum, we can recognize why we may not be following through on our goal, change or habits and ask ourselves how we would feel about being on the same rung in five years.
I encourage you to try it. You may want to look first at where you currently would be on the ladder, from the perspective of your whole life. Then, where do you expect to be on the ladder in five years? Why? How do you feel about that? Where do you want to be? What would need to change, in order for you to move up to that rung?
Then, if there is a specific change you have been considering—a habit, a relationship, a career move, weight loss, something else—but have not made any real progress, apply the exercise to that change. Where are you on the ladder currently? Do you find yourself in the zone of the comfort conundrum—five to seven? If so, are you okay with still being there in five years? If you are, maybe it is time to let go of that goal and adopt one that is more compelling for you. If not, what needs to happen to put you on track to climb up the ladder to where you want to be?
After my ride and this thought exercise, I had a clearer picture that, although I am comfortable enough in certain areas of my life, the idea of remaining on the same rung in five years is heavy with the dread of disappointment and regret. With this recognition, I realize that I have the responsibility to take the necessary steps to climb to my desired rung on the happiness ladder.
How about you? Are you satisfied with where you expect to find yourself on the ladder in five years?
“You must want change more than you want the status quo.” Marcia Ramsland