How To Be Resilient: 4 Steps To Success When Life Gets Hard
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The World Health Organization says that Icelandic guys are the longest living men on the planet. They make it to 81.2-years-old, beating the world average by 13.2 years. But it’s not because of their lifestyle. Their obesity rates hover around the global average and their activity levels are nothing to write home about. So why the heck do they live so long?
Dr. Kari Stefansson wanted an answer. He ran Harvard’s neurology department before returning to Iceland to study the genetics of his own people. What’s interesting about Iceland is that it’s had near-zero immigration — everyone there is a descendant of the same group of folks who arrived on the island 1100 years ago. So here’s where things get weird…
Because the genetics of Icelanders today don’t resemble their ancestors much at all. Stefansson says, “We found that the DNA from the settlers of Iceland is closer to the DNA of today’s Norwegians and Celts than it is to the DNA of today’s Icelanders.” So what the heck completely transformed these people? Stefansson thinks he has the answer…
Iceland is a horrible place to live.
For most of those thousand-plus years, food was scarce. Winter lasts nine months, sometimes with just four hours of sunlight. There’s precipitation 213 days a year. Life on that island has been so difficult there was zero population growth for centuries.
And that’s their secret. What made Icelandic men the longest lived on the planet. What unrecognizably changed their DNA: discomfort. In Stefansson’s own words:
This f***ing wet rock in the North Atlantic that has been punishing us relentlessly for the last eleven hundred years.
All that hard living made them stronger, unrecognizably altering their DNA.
And, yes, this is the part where I say we all need a little more discomfort in our lives. We need to deliberately make our lives more challenging. And this may also be the part where you say, “Bring your face a little closer to my fist, Eric. I want to make your life more challenging.”
I get it. After a year of pandemic life and lockdown you don’t want any more challenges, thankyouverymuch. But there’s a little part of you that knows there’s some truth here. Growth and improvement happen outside our comfort zone. The moments in life that made you better, that make you swell with pride when you think about them, from career achievements to education to parenting, well, they did not come easy.
So, yeah, we’re going to talk about how a little discomfort — deliberate discomfort — can be something we need to live better lives. And we’re gonna get some help from someone who went down the discomfort rabbit hole and learned some valuable lessons. Michael Easter is the author of a wonderful new book, “The Comfort Crisis.”
Are you up for a challenge? I understand if you’re not. (If you want to be re-inserted into The Matrix, just say so. Agents are standing by.) But if you’re willing to suffer a little bit with me, I promise we’ll both come out of this stronger – and happier.
Let’s get to it…
The Science of “First World Problems”
The good old days had a lot of bad old things. The kings and queens of antiquity didn’t have 10% of the comfort we do now. Weather is something you only experience on the way from the climate-controlled house to the climate-controlled car to the climate-controlled office. Tasty food is plentiful and you don’t have to hunt it down with a spear. Ancestral-levels of discomfort are about as familiar to you as quantum entanglement.
Some will push back, “But isn’t that a good thing? It’s natural to want to get rid of all our discomforts. That’s the goal of life!”
BZZZZZZ. Wrong answer. And not because of some macho philosophy. The problem is our brains don’t work like that. If you think we will ever reach a point where enough comfort will be enough, you probably believe “duck and cover” will protect you from nuclear attack.
Let’s talk brain science. Harvard psychologist David Levari showed people hundreds of images of faces. They had to rate the faces as threatening or not-threatening. But there’s a twist, because this is a psychology study and in psychology studies there is always a twist. As people saw more and more faces, Levari changed the ratio of scary-to-nice. He put in fewer and fewer threatening faces. Guess what happened?
People’s brains moved the goalposts. As they saw fewer threatening faces, their standards for what constituted a threatening face went down. Now a look of neutrality was deemed “threatening.” And he repeated this effect in subsequent studies.
It’s scientific proof of “first world problems.” As Michael Easter explains, fewer problems don’t lead to more satisfaction, they lead us to lower our threshold for what is considered a problem. And that’s why when I mentioned that you have it better than the kings and queens of antiquity, you went yeah-yeah-yeah-whatever.
From The Comfort Crisis:
When a new comfort is introduced, we adapt to it and our old comforts become unacceptable. Today’s comfort is tomorrow’s discomfort. This leads to a new level of what’s considered comfortable.
The quest to avoid discomfort and just live in a perpetual hammock of bliss will never end because your brain won’t let it. It’s an endless marathon where the finish line is always a mile away. As Randall Jarrell once said, “People who live in a golden age go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”
Yes, this is a deeply depressing gonzo postmodern epiphany but we have a solution. And, yes, it’s that ugly word “discomfort.” Rather than avoiding all discomfort we need to deliberately challenge and stretch ourselves to remind our brains that our current difficulties aren’t all that bad.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, life isn’t always easy. Taxes are due April 15th. There is no Santa. We need to push ourselves. What’s a good way to get started?
Boredom Is Good
We average 2.5 hours a day on our phones. Say you live 40 more years, that’s 4.2 years on your phone. Yes, you are going to spend more than 10% of the rest of your life on your phone. This has serious deathbed regret implications.
So why do we do it? Because we don’t want to be bored. Ever. And the existential bleakness of life on apps seems far better than even a moment of boredom.
But what the heck is boredom? James Danckert, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, says it’s a motivational state. Boredom is your brain saying, “DO SOMETHING! ACHIEVE THOSE GOALS!” Studies dating back to the 1950’s show boredom actually makes you more creative. Your brain is itching to solve problems and accomplish things.
Boredom leads to creativity and creativity leads to success in life. It even beats IQ.
From The Comfort Crisis:
The kids who came up with more, better ideas in the initial test were the ones who became the most accomplished adults. They were successful inventors and architects, CEOs and college presidents, authors and diplomats, and so on. Torrance testing, in fact, smokes IQ testing. A recent study of the kids in Torrance’s study found that creativity was a threefold better predictor of much of the students’ accomplishments compared to their IQ scores.
Our brains are hungry to be creative and accomplish stuff but we’re stifling it 2.5 hours a day with those adult pacifiers knows as smartphones.
Want to be more productive, creative and successful? Let yourself get a little bored. Let it build until you’re a Tasmanian Devil spinning with motivation to accomplish something.
And then, instead of wasting it on your phone, channel it toward something that matters.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
If this post is not boring you, I’m happy. But if it is boring you, I’m turning you into a motivated creativity machine. Either way I win, and we both know that’s what important here.
So you need to let yourself get a little bored. Can’t get worse than that, right?
Of course it can! Let’s talk about ultimate discomfort…
Think About Death
Life is a self-cleaning oven. Yeah, you’re going to die. I know you don’t like that but this is science and the customer is not always right.
Sure, it makes intuitive sense to ignore death. Nobody wants to go on vacation constantly thinking about the fact that the trip is going to end soon. That’s no way to spend your week in Maui. But if psychology teaches us anything it’s that our brains don’t always work the way we think they do. Or, to quote the Princess Bride: “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”
Researchers at the University of Kentucky had people think about death and the result was… they got happier.
From The Comfort Crisis:
The scientists concluded, “Death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts.”
Sound crazy? Yeah, if you just obsessively dwell on your Maui trip ending, that sucks. But thinking about having to leave in a week can make you better appreciate the beach because you don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s forever. You don’t take it for granted – you savor it. And you make better choices about what to do with your week because you don’t want to waste it. You focus on what’s important. You acknowledge time is limited, so you make the most of it. Ergo, life is Maui.
And in a similar way, thinking about the end makes us appreciate the people around us more.
From The Comfort Crisis:
A study in Psychological Science discovered that people who thought about their own death were more likely to show concern for people around them. They did things like donate time, money, and their own blood to blood banks…
Why? Because gratitude.
From The Comfort Crisis:
The scientists wrote that when people think about death they tend to recognize ‘what might not be’ and become more grateful for the life they now experience.
In 2020, COVID broke in like the Kool-Aid Man providing us with a very scary wake-up call about death. That wasn’t fun. But on the other hand, I’ll bet you’re appreciating things about life now, post-lockdown, that you had taken for granted before. Seeing friends, leaving the house and no longer having to do the social-distancing-Pac-Man-escape when you see strangers approaching.
You don’t want your life to be like that awful moment on Sunday evening when the work week looms and you say, “Where did the time go? I didn’t do all those things I wanted to do.”
We spend a lot of time waiting to live instead of living. The discomfort that comes with thinking about death can spur us to live better. To make the most of it. Because some day you will die…
But not today. Today you really need to live.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Time to switch up our tour of discomfort and ask, “What can we proactively do about it?” What’s a magic bullet way to reset that “first world problems” part of your brain?
Yes, the answer is a little more discomfort. But you get to choose this kind. And it’s required that you make it a little fun…
It’s a Japanese word that, for our purposes, means “Doing hard stuff because it’s hard.”
From The Comfort Crisis:
Misogis are an emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenge that masquerades as a physical challenge.
Some people do seemingly crazy things like running marathons. (People far more insane devote countless hours to writing snarky blog posts and books.) Misogi is challenging yourself to test your mettle and stretch the bounds of what you thought you were capable of.
In the modern world we think we should never feel any discomfort. Life becomes discomfort Whac-A-Mole. But as we saw, your brain will never let you win that game. Best example? Helicopter parenting. Kids are safer now than they have ever been… but that led to parents becoming concerned about ever more tiny threats. The result? Kids that are more anxious and depressed than ever.
From The Comfort Crisis:
Preventing kids from exploring their edges is largely thought to be the cause of the abnormally high and growing rates of anxiety and depression in young people. A study found that anxiety and depression rates in college students rose roughly 80 percent in the generation just after helicopter parenting began.
We aren’t at our best with zero stress. We’re at the top of our game with moderate stress. Mark Seery, a psychologist at the University at Buffalo, found that a little pressure makes us better.
From The Comfort Crisis:
Compared to the people who’d been sheltered their entire lives, “the people who’d faced some adversity reported better psychological well-being over the several years of the study,” said Seery. “They had higher life satisfaction, and fewer psychological and physical symptoms. They were less likely to use prescription painkillers. They used healthcare services less. They were less likely to report their employment status as disabled.” By facing some challenge but not an overwhelming amount, these people developed an internal capacity that left them more robust and resilient.
People want to be more confident, but they want it in the form of a magic incantation. Bah. Your brain isn’t buying those cheap words. On the other hand, when you accomplish difficult things, your gray matter has a lot more trouble denying you’re capable of the challenges ahead.
Confidence isn’t a magic thing that you feel switching on. 99% of the time when you’re confident, you don’t realize it – you just do the thing. Did you celebrate your confidence in being able to get up and walk across the room? “No, that’s easy.” That’s confidence. And you can expand that confidence to harder and harder things by doing harder and harder things.
So how do we get there? There are two fundamental rules to doing a Misogi:
1. It has to be really hard.
2. Don’t die.
Seriously, you want to pick a challenge where you have about a 50% chance of success. A nice balance where you are definitely stretching yourself but you’re also not going to get frustrated and collapse in a puddle of Sisyphean failure.
And make your Misogi quirky. You want it to be idiosyncratic. Personal. It’s your challenge. This process is inward facing. It’s not to show off and you don’t want it to be something where you’re comparing your performance to others. It’s a test by you and for you.
There is no avoiding challenges in life – but you can pick ones that excite you. Just like getting strong in the gym makes lifting Amazon Prime boxes easier at your doorstep, stretching yourself with deliberate challenges makes the unexpected emotional challenges of daily life easier.
(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)
Hopefully, reading this has not felt like its own misogi. But the discomfort has come to an end. Time to round it all up and see how all of this leads to a happier life…
This is how to be resilient:
- “First world problems”: Playing discomfort Whac-A-Mole just moves the goalposts and makes you see less threatening things as threatening. Deliberate discomfort keeps small problems small.
- Boredom is a motivation state: Don’t feed it the junk food of phone time, let it propel you toward creative accomplishment.
- Think about death: Imagining the Grim Reaper standing next to you, looking at his watch and humming “Time is on my side” — is not fun. But a little reminder than death will come tells you this life is not a dress rehearsal and makes you appreciate it all the more.
- “Misogi”: There is nothing like the hot-buttered satisfaction of doing something you thought you couldn’t do. Deliberate challenges on “hard mode” put everyday life on “easy mode.”
Going all-in on comfort has “some issues” in the same way the Pacific Ocean has “some water.” There’s a whiff of brimstone in the air when we sign that contract. We mistake comfort for happiness and this denies us the pleasure that comes from accomplishment. Without accomplishment we lose the pillars that support confidence and self-esteem.
When we dodge discomfort, our brain works against us and fear expands in concentric circles. We can’t see the possibilities of life or our own potential – only threat. This is not how you win; this is how you lose slowly.
As the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
Deliberate discomfort is how we vaccinate ourselves against our brains finding smaller and smaller things uncomfortable. A little of the poison each day makes you immune to it.
Sometimes when you challenge yourself, you will fail. Yup. But when you fail at difficult things, nobody blames you. That’s why those things are called “difficult”, right?
But occasionally you’ll succeed. And when you do, you’ll impress everyone. Including the person that matters most here…
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