Right now I’m writing this on my laptop, which is sitting right where it’s supposed to be – in my lap. The TV is on, the temperature in my house is a perfectly even 72 degrees, and nothing is on fire. If my refrigerator were within reach of my couch, I would never have to get up again.
And as it turns out, that wouldn’t be such a good thing. We spend an enormous amount of energy seeking comfort, and we do so for intelligent reasons – after all, comfort not only means safety and security, but it’s also, well, comfortable. We also tend to view comfort as arising from two main factors: having enough money to do whatever we can think to do, and not needing to move very much. Millionaires lead supposedly comfortable lives, and we are more comfortable on a couch on in bed than we are on a boat or spaceship. If we follow this logic to its natural conclusion, then the goal of all of our lives should be to make as much money as possible while doing as little as we can get away with.
But as it turns out, being comfortable is actually harmful to our long-term health and happiness.
The argument against comfort comes from scientists, of course (who are notoriously uncomfortable people). Two independent studies from psychology professors at Cornell and San Francisco State University found that experiences make us far happier than material possessions. Specifically, experiences are both more immediately enjoyable and provide a greater long-term psychological benefit, even long after the experience has ended. Material possessions, on the other hand, tend to provide more fleeting feelings of happiness. To put it another way, we feel rejuvenated after a good vacation or volunteering activity; but after we get ourselves a new 60” television, we tend to immediately want a 70” one.
That’s not to say that experiences are inherently uncomfortable, and plenty of vacations involve nothing more strenuous than staring at a pool while lifting a pina colada to our lips. But some experiences hardly fall under the classical definition of ‘relaxing.’ Hiking the Appalachian Trail, helping your children move into their first college apartment, volunteering at a local charity, spending 26 hours on a plane to get to Australia – these are not sedate activities. Scaling Macchu Piccu or Mount Everest is exhausting and dangerous, and yet these moments provide more joy than curling up with a good book in front of a warm fire.
As to money, there is a correlation between wealth and happiness – but only to a point. A 2010 Princeton University study found that money and happiness were not correlated to each other beyond $75,000 a year. In other words, earning $200,000 will not make you twice as happy as earning $100,000. It seems that once our basic needs are met and we feel as though we have a small amount of discretionary income, money doesn’t matter nearly as much as we teach ourselves that it does.
I’m not saying we should all take a vow of poverty. I’m also not saying we need intermittent bouts of excruciating pain so that we can better appreciate the days when nobody is beating us with a hammer. But making an honest appraisal of what we really need and occasionally stepping out of our comfort zone – be it physically, mentally, or both – might just be the thing we need to make sure we don’t leave this life with the vague feeling that maybe we could have done more with it than we did.