The Comfort Conundrum

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

What Limits Would Create More Freedom in Your Life?

Gretchen Rubin is one of my favorite authors. She writes about happiness and habits, two topics of interest to me. She has developed a collection of what she calls her “Secrets of Adulthood,” lessons she has learned over the years that help her to navigate life on a day-to-day basis.

I recently pondered one of these on my bike, and I decided I would pose the question it generated for me to you.

Rubin says, “Give yourself limits to give yourself freedom.”

While this may seem contradictory at first, it is not.

The question I encourage you to ask yourself is, “What limits can you give yourself to create more freedom in your life?”

You can start by considering whether there is something from which you would like to be free. Is there a habit you would like to eliminate? Do you long to be free from a negative self-image? Would you like to shed some physical or emotional weight? Is financial debt weighing you down? Is it the heaviness of regret or disappointment? Is there someone you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself?

The sources of bondage are endless. Freedom requires proactive action. Rubin’s secret of adulthood is one of the keys to the kind of proactive action that can free you from whatever bondage has its hold on you.

During that introspective bike ride, I was considering where I could add limits to create freedom in my own life. One area that came to mind was my relationship with chocolate. Periodically, I can fall into the trap of using chocolate as a crutch. I have to catch myself, acknowledge it and be willing to impose limits, in order to free myself from its clutches and consequences. While different issues will call for variations on these ideas, using chocolate dependence as an example, here are the steps I recommend for setting limits to create freedom:

  1. Check in with yourself. A mindfulness practice is a great way to do this. Taking time each day to stop, quiet your mind and notice if there is anything that has you feeling unsettled can help you catch issues that are preventing you from being truly free.
  2. If there is a pattern that creates anxiety or raises negative feelings or something that you wish were different in our life, recognize it and acknowledge it for yourself. This might just be in your head, but it might be helpful to journal or talk to someone about it.
  3. Decide what limits you need to create freedom. I have treated my tendency toward dependence on chocolate in different ways at different times. When it was severe, 12 years ago when we moved to a new home with a toddler, I eliminated the option of chocolate consumption in any form. This felt necessary at the time. I did not allow myself any chocolate for three years. While difficult at first, it was very freeing. Once I had other safeguards in place, it felt safe to allow it back into my life in controlled situations. Overall, that served me for many years, but, in the past several weeks, I loosened my limits to compensate for perceived lack in other areas of life (That could be another whole blog post.), and I recently recognized and acknowledged to myself that I was disappointed with my lack of control (even though it is nothing like it was in 2006), and I wanted to do something about it. On my bike, when I was reflecting on Rubin’s secret of adulthood, I considered eliminating all chocolate again. That doesn’t feel necessary. I decided that I would allow myself chocolate in two situations (in addition to cocoa and cacao in my smoothies): one square of at least 70% cacao dark chocolate after dinner and infrequent dark chocolate chips when I have what I call a “comfort bowl.” This is something I do only about once a week, and it consists of some combination of the following items: raw oatmeal, berries or cherries, vegan yogurt, nuts and/or seeds, cacao nibs, cocoa, nut butter and dark chocolate chips. This feels like a comforting and decadent treat. That’s it. On a daily basis, I will not eat chocolate in other situations.
  4. Know yourself. Do you need the added accountability of acknowledging the problem to someone else, like a trusted friend, counselor or coach? Determine what support you need to remain within your self-imposed limits and seek it.
  5. Affirm your daily success. Each day that you remain within your limits, honor yourself and celebrate in a way that is aligned with your goals.
  6. Relish the freedom. Notice how much lighter and happier and FREER you feel.
  7. Build on the freedom and success. What is your next project? Where can you gain even more freedom by giving yourself limits?

I think the first time I read about this concept of freedom through limits, it was framed as freedom through discipline by Maia Duerr. It resonated with me at the time in a profound way. I could recognize periods in my life where the idea had been true, but it was the first time I had seen it named.

My hope is that by bringing your attention to this idea, you may be motivated to acknowledge an area where you could free yourself by limiting yourself and that you will find the courage to do so.

“The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.”
–Peter Clemons

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, a Book Review

Walking on Sunshine, by British author Rachel Kelly, is a quick, easy read that is not really intended to be read through all at once. In a similar vein to Jon Cousins’ Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Walking on Sunshine provides bite-sized ideas for increasing happiness. In this case the happiness prescriptions are delivered one week at a time for one year, instead of one day at a time for one month, as was the case in Cousins’ book.

Kelly organized this book by seasons, beginning with spring, loosely defined as March, April and May. Personally, this organizational calendar did not appeal, for two primary reasons. The main one stems from one of my own happiness struggles—self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Just seeing the word “Autumn,” although less depressing than its alternative, “Fall,” causes me to feel heaviness in my body. In a book intended to promote happiness, that feels counterproductive. I recognize that is my own issue, and others may not have the same visceral reaction to the season that I do. The second reason that I would prefer a different structure is that it seems somewhat potentially difficult for someone to pick up the book and start at the “right” week, since the weeks are numbered, but begin with March, not January. Maybe there is no real “right” way to use the book, but for those of us who like order and logic, this feels a bit unnerving.

Those minor criticisms aside, I really like Kelly’s message, which, like Cousins’, is essentially that we have some power to help ourselves when we are feeling down. It does not always have to involve prescription medication or weekly therapy (although those things may have their places). Proactively brightening our own spirits can be as simple as a self-administered relaxation exercise, connecting with a beloved animal companion or volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

As someone who reads a lot of positive psychology and has made significant conscious effort to boost my own mood in a variety of ways, Kelly’s simple, accessible suggestions resonate with me. She makes references to poetry in several places. While it is not poetry, specifically, that centers me, words are extremely important to my mood management. My collections of quotes are some of my most powerful happiness boosts. Kelly seems to find some of her strongest boosts in poetry.

I recommend this book for its simplicity and accessibility. There is nothing Kelly suggests that can be harmful, and her easy-to-implement strategies may be just the spirit boosts someone needs.

Book Review: Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Jon Cousins

I initially read Nudge Your Way to Happiness, by Jon Cousins, all the way through because I wanted a feel for the entire book, but it is not really meant to be read that way. The book is designed to provide a customized, 30-day program for edging up one’s happiness. Reading it through initially, I found myself annoyed because Cousins frequently made statements such as, “Right now, when things are better . . .” and “Although you may be feeling well at the moment . . . .” I kept thinking, “How does he know how I am feeling right now?” Then, it dawned on me that the issue was with how I was reading the book vs. how it was meant to be read. Actually, a unique and interesting feature of the book is that Cousins provides three possible “nudges” each day. The reason he might make a statement about how the reader was feeling is that the particular nudge was designed for either a low-mood day, an average day or a high-mood day. Once that occurred to me, I was better able to appreciate the features of each exercise.

I read a lot of positive psychology and happiness literature, and Cousins utilizes strategies from many well-respected researchers and authors. The exercises he recommends are solid, practical and simple. They are brief enough and accessible enough that even someone experiencing depression could perform them.

After reading the book through once, I began my journey to work through the book day by day. Today is Day 21. Reading and utilizing the book as it was designed to be used is more rewarding than simply reading it as a typical book. Cousins suggests doing the exercises first thing in the morning, and that is what I am doing. I think the most important thing is to choose a consistent time.

I like the checklist that Cousins provides each day, creating an opportunity to check in with myself and see how I am feeling across 10 variables. As someone who is very introspective, I find myself looking forward to my morning assessment. Perhaps even more interesting or useful is the graph at the back of the book that provides an opportunity to plot the trends in my happiness score throughout the project. Each day, Cousins asks the question, “What happened?” This allows me to reflect on the reason for my current happiness score and to better understand the peaks and valleys in the graph.

Nudge Your Way to Happiness is a simple, but well-written and useful, book that draws from the existing happiness and positive psychology literature and translates it into a practical formula for thinking about our own level of positive vs. negative emotions and reflecting on the reasons for those levels. In addition to providing daily exercises that can serve as tools, not just during the 30 days of working through the book, but on an ongoing basis. The book’s value derives from both those tools and from the introspection the daily tracking inspires. Understanding more about the things that boost our mood and the things that drain us of energy and joy allows us to take action to incorporate into our lives more of the former and less of the latter.

I recommend this book for people who are seeking to enhance their happiness, ward off seasonal blues, push back a natural inclination toward the melancholy or to combat depression. It is a strategy that can do no harm and certainly can teach us something that may help us in both the short term and the long term.