“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.”
– from ‘If’, by Rudyard Kiplng
What dangers might there be in too much comfort and ease? For you, for me, and for our children?
If you’re familiar with the modern Sufi tale concerning the teaching figure of Molla Nasreddin, you might recognize a pattern within it.
Nasreddin and the factory
One morning, the head of the factory where Nasreddin was working called all the workers together to make an announcement.
“None of you will be required to work here anymore, as all your jobs will be completely automated from next month.”
There was a horrified gasp from all the workers. But then the factory president brightened.
“But fear not! Although your jobs will henceforth be conducted by machines, you will all continue to be paid as before. In fact, due to increased profits, all you loyal workers will get your current salaries plus annual increments. You’ll have health insurance and free use of all the facilities here, as well as generous pensions. All you have to do is to come in on Friday to collect your pay!”
Now there were gasps of joy and relief among an atmosphere of general celebration.
After a while, though, Nasreddin raised his hand.
“Not every Friday I hope!”
This may seem like an exaggerated example of how quickly habituation to ease and comfort can occur – and even lead to resentment.
But consider this.
Not as happy as I’d hoped!
Research conducted back in 1978 found that lottery winners were not significantly happier six months after winning the lottery than they had been before.1 Sure, there was an ecstatic spike of euphoria when they actually won. But, like Nasreddin, they soon became used to their winnings.
The dizzying high of the moment of winning can make other moments less pleasurable or significant by comparison. Nothing seems to match up to the initial rush of discovering you’ve won. Another factor is what the researchers call ‘adaptation-level theory’, which basically means getting used to changed circumstances so they no longer seem special.2 This can happen in many scenarios.
The person you couldn’t wait to see becomes the person you barely see at all because they’ve become little more than background distraction.
It seems that we all have a general level of personal happiness that we tend to veer towards despite sudden impacts of great (or terrible) fortune.3
So when aiming for goals we should be mindful that the realisation of them will not necessarily complete all our emotional needs. Otherwise we may be left feeling strangely empty: “I’m rich, but there’s still something missing!”
And we need to retain or develop the capacity to enjoy small and simple pleasures, which also seems to be a key to happiness.
But another thing that seems to make us happier is the capacity for mental and physical resilience.
Time to toughen up?
As the Roman philosopher Seneca famously said, “Excellence withers without adversity.”
The idea of building resilience, ‘toughening up’ through adversity, has become, I think, a bit old-fashioned. As old-fashioned as a timeless and perennial principle can be! The spirit of our age has, to some extent, become one of victimhood and assumed fragility. Tolerance and understanding are vital in a healthy society, but a cure can so quickly become a poison in overdose.
If we remain coddled, eternally unoffended and unchallenged, we may weaken as individuals.4 And excellence may, as Seneca put it, wither and die.
No, we shouldn’t insult or belittle – but if we are protected from any form of judgement, we may become super sensitive and find offence where none was intended. In the extreme, everything becomes offensive. If we are kept in a soft prison of comfort, then we risk anything becoming uncomfortable. The person full of presumptions and narrow expectations is the one most easily offended.
Not having the chance to toughen up, learn to tolerate diverse opinions, or take feedback may make us miserable in the long term.
It’s through being offended and challenged that we find reserves of strength we may otherwise never have discovered. How much resourcefulness, strength, and heroism becomes buried for want of some kind of challenge or affront to assumptions?
No one becomes wise by simply being affirmed all the time.
Offence is underrated
If you infer that I am lazy, I can simply be offended and leave it at that. If I know there is no truth here, I can relax and move on. But if I feel some emotional disturbance, that may actually signal that I intuitively know you are right in some way. And if I’m not tough enough to take the feedback, I might just deflect it as you being horrible.
If it is true, and I can look at myself objectively, I have the chance to adapt and change.
Many people need to start to take it easy on themselves, to stop, as it were, offending themselves – but we need to be wary that our culture doesn’t become so over-cosseting that self-knowledge and resilience are driven out.
When we just take offence, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from different points of view. We stop taking feedback from life. But more than that, there is a real emotional danger in being led to believe we are more fragile and delicate than we actually are, and that comfort must be our number-one priority at all times.
Just as there are dangers in being excessively praised, so too we can begin to feel depressed and hopeless if we always look outside ourselves when we feel offended or emotionally crushed. Why? Because our locus of control is shifted from internal to external.
What happens when we hand over control?
When we base our behaviour and sense of self-worth on what other people say to us, we hand over control to external people and circumstances. We can lose that all important sense of self-reliance, of autonomy. This can lead to a form of learned helplessness.
So just as excessive physical ease and comfort can erode bone density, weaken the heart, and soften the muscles,5 so too a deficiency of psychological challenges can weaken resilience and reduce opportunities for growth and self-knowledge. We need to learn to negotiate life as active agents, rather than passive recipients of fate simply hoping or demanding others treat us well.
We can even encourage reasonable adversity as a strategy to help us become and stay strong.
Too green and pleasant
Legend has it that when the Arabs conquered parts of Europe they expressed some reluctance.6 France appeared so lush and green that they feared they’d be made soft, brittle, and weak through its pleasant comforts. Now, whether this is true or not, it tells us something valuable.
Perhaps comfort and ease should be a side effect of having worked hard on goals and triumphed over adversity, not the default setting of a coddled life.
If we can become conscious of the potential dangers of comfort and ease and how it may potentially weaken us, then we can make purposefully become stronger and more resilient in all ways. Yes it’s more comfortable to take the escalator – but it’s less comfortable in the long term to be incapacitated through lack of exercise.
Resilience can be learned young. As shown by Mark Katz in his book On Playing a Poor Hand Well, even extreme (but manageable) adversity in childhood can help children turn into resourceful, mentally healthier adults.7 And with soaring rates of mental health problems in our young,8 we should be just as concerned about fostering resilience in our children as we are about protecting them.
The decline of tough kids?
Western children now have less unsupervised play than ever before. In a single generation, from the 1970s to the beginning of the 1990s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the space around their home where they’re permitted to play unsupervised – declined by nearly 90%.9
Some teachers and protective parents may be quick to break up play fights among young boys. And women who haven’t been brought up with brothers often assume almost all of these fights are real.10 But such play fighting only descends into real fights 1% of the time.11
Surely the fact that this kind of adversarial behaviour is found in all young male mammals suggests it serves some kind of purpose – and an important one at that. It makes sense that these kind of ‘fights’ may foster resilience and the capacity to resolve disputes independently.
Suppressing physicality, adventurousness, and exuberance in young children may produce frightened adults who perpetually fear life.
Of course, we need to be protective and prevent bullying where we can. And we need to teach children not only not to offend but also how not to be offended.12
But it goes further than that. Adversity, the opposite of comfort and ease, can make us more than just strong. It can make us antifragile.
Antifragility is more than mere resilience
Nassim Taleb coined the term antifragile in his book of the same name. He defines it as “a property of systems that increase the capability to thrive as a result of stressors.” Bones don’t simply become more resilient after weight-bearing – they become much less likely to break in the first place.13 Antifragility isn’t just resilience – it’s the exact opposite of fragile.
I sometimes like to talk of post-traumatic growth. On both the physical and the psychological levels, this kind of growth can only be produced by stressors. Antifragility is beyond robustness or resilience. The resilient recover well from adversity; the antifragile get better at avoiding adversity in the first place – not just withstanding stresses but actually being strengthened by them.
If we all become too protected – maybe even developing a kind of collective phobia of discomfort – we will all become weaker. Whether through concept creep – like the idea that speech can be violence and we must have ‘safe’ speech all the time – or excessive physical comfort, constant avoidance of hardship can, ironically, lead to hardship.
Sit on the sofa for long enough and you will be wracked with pain – and then you won’t be able to get comfortable anywhere. Avoid disconfirming viewpoints for too long and you may be unable to cope when you inevitably do meet someone for whom conforming to your idea of ‘acceptable speech’ is not a priority. This is a weakening, not a strengthening.
Mind you, it might take psychologists hundreds of years to catch up and conform the intuitive wisdom of ancient (and not so ancient) stories and homilies.
There’s a beautiful American folk story that illustrates the nature of antifragility and perhaps the dangers of becoming too easily offended.
“I was born and raised in a briar patch!”
One day Br’er Fox was in a creative mood. Using tar and turpentine, he created a perfectly formed baby doll. He then made tiny clothes from cotton to dress the baby and was very pleased with the results. He left the baby out on a path and hid behind a tree.
When Br’er Rabbit came along and saw the baby, he believed it to be real. “Hello, and what’s your name?” he asked. Of course, the doll made no reply. Offended at this apparent lack of respect, he lashed out at the tar baby – but became stuck to it!
“Ahh! I can’t move!” he yelled. The more he kicked and punched the tar baby, the more stuck he became. As Br’er Fox now revealed himself from behind the tree, Br’er Rabbit realised he was trapped.
“Oh, no! Please, Br’er Fox, don’t punish me. And please, whatever you do, don’t fling me into that thorny, prickly briar patch!”
Br’er Fox managed to unstick the sticky doll from the rabbit. And with spite in his eyes, he threw Br’er Rabbit into the spiky briar patch. A moment later, Br’er Rabbit skipped free, yelling gleefully, “This is nothing to me. I was born and raised in a briar patch!”
What seemed like adversity had, through life experience, become perfectly tolerable for Br’er Rabbit – and even ended up being his lifeline.
So how much adversity can you or I take?
Maybe we shouldn’t always be avoiding life’s ‘briar patches’.
My session on increasing resilience
Over at our sister site, we have created an audio session on increasing resilience. Read more here.
- https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1980-01001-001. The researchers of this study also found that people who suffered terrible accidents rendering them paraplegic weren’t significantly more unhappy 6 months after the accident than they had been before the accident, although they did tend to idealise their past, which impacted somewhat negatively on their current happiness.
- See: Lukianoff, G., and Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin Press.
- Alas, I can’t recall where I read this and can’t find a source for it. Please let me know if you find one!
- This property is described by Wolff’s Law.
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