The Benefits of Discomfort

adventure journal benefits of discomfort

About a year ago, psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal gave a TED Talk on “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” which has now been viewed six million times. To paraphrase, McGonigal said this: Stress can kill you, but only if you believe stress is bad for your health. If you don’t believe it’s bad for you, stress won’t kill you.

Which is quite revolutionary, but it wasn’t the part of the talk that I frantically transcribed as I was listening a few weeks ago, then rewound it and listened again to make sure I got it right. After the talk, the host asked McGonigal: How does this apply to people who are, for example, choosing between a stressful job and a non-stressful job? She said:

“One thing we know for certain is that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that’s really the best way to make decisions, is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

In the past century Americans have developed many ways to remove life’s discomforts and become more “civilized,” and now we can have things like central air conditioning, $3,000 mattresses, and $1,500 reclining chairs. But all along, the pendulum was swinging the other way for people who went back out into the mountains and woods to sleep in the dirt, get sweaty, get rained on, and maybe spend a night shivering and waiting for the sun to come up.

In the adventure world, we see a billion examples of this: climbers who live out of cars for months or years at a time, ordinary people who spend six months thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or PCT with ultralight packs, others who spend three weeks hauling gear and sitting in tents waiting for a weather window for a summit attempt. And we all have those moments ourselves: whether we’re about to puke from exertion of climbing a thousand feet on a bike or a set of crampons or pair of running shoes, or getting blasted in the face with 40 mph wind-driven snow, or freaking out about falling above a piece of not-so-great gear. We’re not doing it so we can get a six-pack or a selfie-we must think there’s something else out there.

Cory Richards talks about it in his film A Tribute To Discomfort, in which he describes some of the more uncomfortable moments in his photography career, including the avalanche that almost buried him on Gasherbrum II in 2011. Art Davidson titled his book about the 1967 first winter ascent of Denali “Minus 148 Degrees,” for the low temperature the team experienced in what became a battle for survival, and years later said in an interview, “it’s not just about a mountain in winter, but about having a dream; about taking on a great challenge and then struggling as hard as you can to reach your goal-or to survive.”

During my adult years, learning from people in the adventure community, I’ve tried to make the uncomfortable (or unsure) choice whenever I can, figuring it worked for lots of people I know, so maybe it’ll work for me. When I started writing my book, I thought of a million different first sentences, but went with one I thought was the most true: “I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks that when you set out looking for the big answers in life, you gotta be as uncomfortable as possible when you do it.”

Lots of people picked up on Kelly McGonigal’s quote from that TED Talk. It gives some scientific justification to the uncomfortable choices we make in life, from raising kids (which all parents will tell you is no picnic at first but incredibly meaningful), to quitting our job for a new uncertain one, to climbing mountains. Turns out the path to your dreams is a little scary sometimes.

Later, in a great interview with The We Belong Project, McGonigal went on to say:

“Avoiding discomfort is the world’s worst strategy because it requires choosing discomfort. For example, if you choose to avoid situations that make you anxious, you are choosing anxiety, and strengthening anxiety’s ability to control you. If you choose to avoid opportunities that trigger self-doubt, you are choosing self-doubt and convincing self-doubt it is right. … Do you want to feel anxiety while avoiding things that have meaning, or do you want to feel anxiety while you do them?”

Brendan Leonard is Semi-Rad.

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