How civilization's success has weakened our resilience.
The ingenuity and hard work of humans across our history have elevated living standards to levels never before imagined. The average person alive today has access to clean water, delicious food varieties in any season, sturdy housing, transportation to anywhere in the world in less than a day, unlimited clothing options, advanced health care, access to all the world's knowledge, wireless communication, weather forecasting, smartphones, the internet, Netflix, luxury handbags, gourmet surf and turf delivered to their door in 30 minutes, and nearly anything they can possibly want available on Amazon delivered within two days.
A poor person today has a better standard of living than the "Sun King,"Louis XIV. From groundbreaking medical advancements to the luxuries of modern technology, we've transformed our world for the better. It's the natural evolution of progress, and it's fantastic!
But at what cost?
I'm going to assert that modern prosperity and abundance shield us from the harshness of our ancestors' realities, and comfort comes with an unanticipated cost: our diminishing ability to handle discomfort and adversity.
Consider the lives of our forebears, marked by physical labor and daily survival challenges, with minimal healthcare or modern conveniences. When an early homo sapien arose from her cold hut in the morning after sleeping on a rock, she didn't know if she would eat or be eaten that day.
Millenia later, a farm boy labors hard in the dirt 16 hour every day in the scorching sun on his family farm so they don't starve over the cold winter. Amidst the Industrial Revolution, a 14-year-old girl arrives at the textile factory to put in her 16-hour day doing the same repetitive task amidst the noisy, unsafe spinning belts overhead and the polluted air from the coal-fired boilers powering the show. After sunset, she goes home and prepares dinner (stale bread and porridge) for her family, who are all too weak from Cholera to get out of bed.
Read Steven Pinker's, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" if you're not convinced that the past was worse than the present.
These harsh environments, while tough, bred resilience and adaptability. People learned to endure, to solve problems, and to thrive despite adversity. Today, contrasted against our climate-controlled environments and technology-assisted lives, this resilience seems like a relic of the past.
Paradoxically, the seeds of comfort and prosperity are sown from hardship and the desire to avoid future struggle.
The Hedonic Ratchet
Once we reach a certain level of comfort and prosperity, it's as if a ratchet mechanism clicks into place, preventing us from sliding back to our previous states of hardship. Our expectations, having been elevated, reset at this new level. The ease and conveniences we once considered luxuries quickly become necessities, creating a perpetual cycle where each new comfort raises the baseline of what we consider essential. This constant upward adjustment in our expectations not only makes it challenging to appreciate simpler pleasures but also leaves us less equipped to handle discomfort when we inevitably encounter it. Our frame of reference changes to a higher baseline of expectations.
Living in a world where comfort is king has subtly altered our psychological landscape. We've grown accustomed to instant gratification, our patience wearing thin at the slightest delay. Minor inconveniences frustrate us, and our threshold for what constitutes a 'hardship' has lowered dramatically. This shift has profound implications for our mental fortitude and our capacity to handle genuine challenges when they arise.
Modern Challenges in Perspective
These days we're almost always comfortable. We live in climate-controlled houses, drive to work in climate-controlled luxury cars (a 2020s Kia is a luxury car compared to a 1950s Mercedes or a Model T or a horse), work relatively short hours with long lunch breaks in climate-controlled offices, and drive to the gym (making sure to get a parking spot near the door) and exercise on custom fitness equipment to protect our joints from stress. If it's raining or cold, we have umbrellas and synthetic waterproof yet breathable puff jackets - no need to endure discomfort for even a minute.
Today's challenges often pale in comparison to historical hardships, yet we perceive them with equal, if not greater, severity. The loss of Wi-Fi on a plane or hot water for a shower can feel catastrophic, or we return our soy mocha latte to the person in the drive-through window and bark, "I asked for extra foam." It's a testament to our reduced tolerance for discomfort, and it reflects a societal shift where the lack of hardship has left many ill-equipped to deal with tiny amounts of stress and adversity.
Health and Physical Implications
The comfort of modern life extends to our physical well-being, but not without drawbacks. Sedentary lifestyles and cheap, abundant, calorie-dense foods contribute to health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease and reduce our physical endurance and strength. Our bodies, much like our minds, have become less hardened to withstand the rigors of environments less forgiving than our daily ones.
On a broader scale, a society nurtured on comfort may struggle with resilience. Anxiety levels are on the rise, and our collective ability to face communal challenges is waning. The lack of shared hardships could weaken our sense of community and our ability to tackle problems together.
I'm no psychologist, but it seems that if you're focused on survival and basic needs, there's no time to worry about suffering from anxiety or depression. Modern comforts have afforded us the luxury of having anxiety – and we have the time and money to talk to a therapist about it. It's hard to be depressed when you're neck-deep in icy water or being chased by a bear.
Balancing Comfort and Resilience
So, how do we strike a balance? It might involve reintroducing controlled elements of hardship into our lives – like regular physical exercise, outdoor adventures, or other practices that remove us from our comfort zones. Choose something that's deliberately uncomfortable but fundamentally good for you. Here are a few simple things I do:
cold showers and cold plunges
trail run shirtless in the winter
endurance training and racing
For more ideas, check out "The Comfort Crisis" by Micheal Easter.
Because I've embraced the suck of cold exposure, when my water heater broke, I didn't bother to fix it for 6 months. Cold showers weren't a big deal, have health benefits, and I saved electricity.
The reason I got into endurance training and racing is precisely for the discomfort. Joe De Sena, founder of Spartan Race, calls it "resetting your frame of reference." When you just ran 30 miles up and down a mountain in the snow in -8°F temperatures, if your next meal doesn't have enough salt or your coffee isn't hot enough, it doesn't bother you as much.
“Life doesn’t always give you what you want or even what you need. Sometimes it just gives you obstacles to see if you are ready for them. You have two options when you face an unexpected obstacle. You can put your head down and shut out the world, pretend that difficult roadblock isn’t there, or you can rise, look up, and take those obstacles head-on.” – Joe De Sena
Culturally and educationally, we need to prepare current and future generations not just for success but for resilience in the face of inevitable challenges.
“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” – G. Michael Hopf
As we continue to advance, it's crucial to reflect on the paradox of our progress. Comfort, while desirable, should not come at the cost of our ability to endure and overcome. Finding that balance is perhaps the next great challenge for our civilization.
Question for you:
Consider your own life: where could you embrace a bit more discomfort for the sake of resilience? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and let's start a conversation on building a more resilient society.