The comfort trap: Why the pursuit of an easier life creates a harder one (and what to do instead)

No matter how hard your life is today, don’t give up. Resist the temptation to pursue an easier life, embrace hardship and escape the comfort trap.

Over 10,000 years ago, humans thrived and co-existed with nature.

Humans fed themselves by hunting wild animals and gathering plants. Plants flourished and animals bred with one another as nature permitted them to do so.

Nature was left alone. There was no intervention or manipulation of the natural order of things.

But, this all changed around 9500-8500 BC.

During this period known as the Agricultural Revolution, humans began to intervene with nature and manipulate the natural breeding process of plants and animals.

Seeds were sown and watered, sheep were placed in meadows and pastures for grazing and animals were forced to participate in selective breeding.

Humans believed that this new way of living would make it easier to provide food to the population, and thus live a better life.

Map of the world showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture during the Agricultural Revolution. Image by Joe Roe [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

The vicious cycle of ease and hardship

In the best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (audiobook), world renown historian, Yuval Noah Harari, describes the early periods of the agricultural revolution:

“With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year. Babies were weaned at an earlier age – they could be fed on porridge and gruel.” [1]

But, Noah Harari notes that this pursuit of an easier life led to unintended consequences:

“The extra hands were sorely needed in the fields. But the extra mouths quickly wiped out the food surpluses, so even more fields had to be planted. As people began living in disease-ridden settlements, as children fed more on cereals and less on mother’s milk, and as each child competed for his or her porridge with more and more siblings, child mortality soared.”

At the time at least one out of every three children died before living till the age of twenty years old. [2]

Despite the rapid rise in the mortality rate of the population, its birth rate continued to rise even faster. And several generations later, humans had become dependent on farming for survival.

Humans left behind a life of hunting and gathering in a well-sized healthy population for a life of farming and breeding in a rapidly growing, disease-ridden population with high death rates.

By the time humans realized that the Agricultural Revolution had failed to live up to its promise of an easier life, it was too late to turn back.

They were caught in a trap — the comfort trap.

In the pursuit of an easier life, humans had unexpectedly created a harder one, as more people were kept alive but under worse conditions than before.

Humans did not foresee that birth rates would rise so quickly or that the increase in wheat consumption would lead to the spread of deadly diseases and high mortality.

They did not foresee that their profitable farms and fields would attract more dangerous threats into their society, including sophisticated intruders, wars and thefts.

Fast forward 10,000 years and humans have learned from the mistakes of the Agricultural Revolution. They’ve escaped the comfort trap and today, live a better life.

Or did history repeat itself again?

The ease of ineffectiveness

Today, more so than ever — due to the advancement of technology and sciences — humans are moving at breakneck speed to discover quicker and easier ways to live.

For example, a few decades ago, it took an effort to send a message to a loved one, friend or colleague. Messages were letters, handwritten with an ink pen on paper. After writing, people would drop the letter in a mailbox and wait several days or even months to receive a response.

And when a reply letter, say from a loved one, was delivered to the sender’s doorstep, it was read carefully with excitement and appreciation for its delivery.

Not so in today’s digital era.

From the tips of our fingers, we can send and receive a reply within seconds from a friend living on the opposite end of the globe.

Gone are the days of messages written with careful thought behind each written word. Nowadays, people send the first thing that comes to mind. Emails, text messages and tweets are rushed and sent on impulse without much consideration for the recipient.

Back then, we’d sort through a handful of letters each month, but today, we’re bombarded every day with hundreds of messages from people who expect a prompt reply, even when their demands aren’t urgent.

Instant messaging and emails were supposed to make communication easier, but have they?

For most of us, virtual communication has become a source of overwhelm, stress and distraction from effective work.

We feel like we’re on a hamster wheel of busyness and can’t find enough time to get things done and focus on what matters most.

But that’s not all.

The rise of technology and the decline of well-being

The pursuit of an easier life through technology has led to the creation of more complex problems that span across every single area of our lives.

Here are some examples.

Social media was created to make it easier for people to stay connected, yet we’ve never felt so disconnected, lonely and isolated from one other than today. [3]

The internet was created to make it easier to store and retrieve information, yet it has created the safety risks of data privacy breaches, identity theft, cyber bullying, online predators, inappropriate content for children and online addictions.

Dating apps were created to make it easier to find love and a life partner, yet it’s never been harder in human history for man and woman to come together and find true love.

Electronic devices — like the computer and mobile phone — were created to make communication easier, yet nowadays, families spend their downtime together either watching TV, texting on mobile phones and using the internet on laptops, instead of communicating with one another.

The modern office was created to make it easier for workers to stay productive, yet employees spend the majority of their workday sat on a chair, slouched over a desk in front of a computer, increasing the risks of obesity, heart diseases and brain damage. [4]

We believed that technology would make life easier, but has it? Can we say with confidence that citizens of developed countries, who have access to the most advanced technology, live a happier and healthier life than those living in developing countries?

So far, our dependency on technology has created more problems — some even worse than before — and a harder life in many ways.

But, how can we revert back to the old way of living when the world has moved on? How can we escape the comfort trap to live a better life?

Graph showing the decline in happiness of USA citizens since 1990, despite the real GDP per capita growth of about 30 percent. (Source: World Happiness Report)

Embrace hardship

Over a 100 years ago, philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

A 100 plus years later, Nietzsche’s words still ring true.

Various studies have shown that people who experience and overcome adverse events—business failures, divorce, death of a loved one, difficult work—develop the necessary mental toughness required to overcome future adverse events. They also experience improved mental health, well-being and overall life satisfaction. [5]

In everyday life we’re faced with the decision to either embrace hardship or avoid it.

We have a choice to either send a lengthy email reply or set up a phone call, to either send a long thread of tweets or text messages to friends or plan a meetup in person, to either drive a mile to a destination or walk instead.

And whilst the easier choices are convenient and save time in the short-term, the harder ones save more time and create more rewarding benefits over the long run.

In the same spirit, we could embrace the hardship of pursuing our goals.

If you’re an entrepreneur, embrace the hardship of spending a ton of time, energy and money building a product that fails.

Embrace the unpredictable flow of income and the uncertain future of your business.

Embrace the loneliness and pain of sacrificing time that could’ve been spent with family and friends.

If you’re a writer or artist, embrace the hardship of failures and rejections of your proposals.

Embrace the struggles with procrastination and creative blocks.

Embrace the fear of criticism and self-doubt of your creative work.

If you’re trying to lose weight and get in shape, embrace the hardship of regular exercise, counting calories and eating healthy meals each day, even when you don’t have the motivation to do so.

Embrace the lack of support and criticism from your friends, family and colleagues.

Embrace the long wait of several months before you reap the rewards of your efforts and notice visible changes in your body shape.

By embracing hardship, we create new opportunities to become better at what we do, gain valuable wisdom and live a better life.

The joys of hardship

There’s an ancient Chinese saying “Chi Ku Shi Fu,” which means “Eating Bitterness is Good Fortune.”

In other words, embracing hardship and unpleasant experiences today, instead of pursuing easier ones, will lead to a better life tomorrow.

No matter how hard your life is today, don’t give up. Resist the temptation to pursue an easier life, embrace hardship and escape the comfort trap.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel of hardship — a lifetime of joy and fulfillment.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.”

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The Comfort Trap: Why the Pursuit of an Easier Life Creates a Harder One (And What to Do Instead).


Footnotes

  1. Thanks to Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, for sharing the history of the agricultural revolution.
  2. Alain Bideau et al, Infant and child mortality in the past (Oxford : Claredon Press, 1997)
  3. Yi Lin, Liu & Sidani, Jaime & Shensa, Ariel & Radovic, Ana & Miller, Elizabeth & B Colditz, Jason & Hoffman, Beth & M Giles, Leila & Primack, Brian. (2016). Association between Social Media Use and Depression among U.S. Young Adults. Depression and anxiety. 33. 10.1002/da.22466.
  4. Owen N, Healy GN, Matthews CE, Dunstan DW. Too much sitting: the population-health science of sedentary behavior. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2010; 38(3):105–13.
  5. Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), 1025-1041. Croft, A., Dunn, E.W., & Quoidbach, J. (2014) From tribulations to appreciation: Experiencing adversity in the past predicts greater savoring in the present.Social Psychological and Personality Science,5, 511-516.
  6. The argument in this article isn’t one for the elimination of the use of technology, rather it argues for the reduction of dependency on it.
  7. An extensive study of 34 countries found that there’s no link between the increase in the economic growth of a country and the well-being or happiness of the citizens of that country.