A Crisis of Comfort

Meeting up with Michael Easter for an interview requires a little trek into nature, and a bit of sand in your shoes.

Climbing up rust-colored rocks under a bright blue sky peppered with pillowy clouds, Easter — a longtime health journalist and lecturer at UNLV — shared one of his favorite adventures from his new book, “The Comfort Crisis.”

In one stop, Easter travels to Bhutan, and its capital city of 100,000 people.

“Thimpu, the biggest city, doesn’t even have a stop light,” he said. “It’s very much like stepping back in time.”

He chose Bhutan to explore one of the central themes of his book: happiness and how we pursue it.

“In the 70s, Bhutan realized that if they focused on growing their GDP, they’d burn up a bunch of their natural resources, and they didn’t want that,” Easter said. “The whole point of having a high GDP is so that your citizens will be happy. Instead, Bhutan said, ‘let’s just figure out what makes people happy and try to get to that.’”

Easter thinks they’re on to something. In “The Comfort Crisis,” he argues that happiness and healthiness can be found when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

Pandemic aside, Easter says that human beings in 2021 have gotten a little too comfortable. So much so, that modern comforts and conveniences are tied to some of society’s most pressing problems: obesity, chronic disease, depression, and a general lack of meaning. 

“Today most of us live at 72 degrees, experiencing weather only during the two minutes it takes us to walk across a parking lot or from the subway station to our cars,” Easter writes. “Americans now spend about 93 percent of our time indoors in climate control, and entire cities wouldn’t exist had we not developed air conditioning. Like Phoenix and Las Vegas.”

The past year, though devastating in so many ways, might actually have been the first time that many Americans felt their “forgotten stresses and realized that humans can still be powerless against the natural world.”

“Too many have died, many more have been seriously ill, and millions beyond that have lost their livelihoods,” he writes. “But just as the pandemic forced nature itself to experience a sort of rewilding, from the cleaner canals of Venice to coyotes roaming around the mostly empty Golden Gate Bridge, we all did, too. It was a reminder that we’re all still deeply connected to the natural world and that our technological advancements can’t fix everything immediately.”

From the Alaskan Arctic to Bhutan, from Austin to Iceland, Easter takes readers on a journey exploring what it means to get out of our comfort zones — talking with leading experts, economists, geneticists, and researchers to understand how we’ve evolved and adapted to our lives of comfort, and science-based recommendations on how to adapt out of them.

He’s even planning to take UNLV students on a similar journey — post-pandemic — as part of a first-of-its-kind course on adventure journalism.

Here, Easter, who’s spent over a decade researching and reporting healthy ways of living, explores why it’s so difficult to leave our comfort zones, and provides some practical recommendations on how to push the boundaries of comfort little by little and inject more adventure back into life.

What are some of the most common discomforts that people have eliminated from their lives?

So, in the book, I look at a handful of specific discomforts that humans have sort of evolved to face, but as we started to engineer the world to become a lot more comfortable, we’ve lost, and paid for it with our health. I think the one that is easiest for people to grasp right off the bat is exercise, and how much we don’t move now.

A century ago, to live was essentially to have to put effort into life. Most jobs at the time, around 85 percent of them, required a lot of manual labor. And now I think only 10 percent do. 

As we’ve sort of engineered movement out of our life, moving is now really uncomfortable. We evolved to feel uncomfortable during exercise, because in past environments when resources were scarce, especially food – it didn’t make any sense to exercise. Somebody who exercised voluntarily would have died because there just wasn’t enough resources. We evolved to be as lazy as possible, as a mechanism to save energy.

So that’s why – still today – no one wants to exercise. We want to sit at our desk, and we’ve engineered everything to be as easy as possible. But it goes beyond exercise and into other areas of our life too. 

We don’t like to be hungry. That used to make sense when there wasn’t enough food around because it would really drive us to eat, and when we would eat we would be rewarded with a shot of dopamine – the feel-good chemical – in our brains. But now we live in this sea of processed food and always have access to food, and that starts to work against us.

Boredom is another big one. As humans evolved, boredom was a cue that told us we weren’t getting a high enough return on the time we were investing in an activity, and to go do something else. Nowadays, anytime we’re bored, we pull out our phone because it’s an easy, comfortable escape from boredom. 

Where do you start? Your book opens with you about to board a four-seater airplane for a 33-day adventure in the Alaskan Arctic, one of the ‘loneliest, most remote, and most hostile’ places on Earth. Surely, you don’t expect us to start there?

First off, I’ll say that you could definitely do that. But, I think about it in terms of slowly pushing your comfort zone over time. So, let’s say you’ve never been camping in your entire life, and the idea of camping makes you a little bit anxious. I’d recommend that you go out and spend one night in a tent, and bring someone along so you feel safer. Yes, you might feel a bit anxious, but after you do that, you’re going to think, “Wow I did that, and that wasn’t that bad. If I can do that, what else can I do?” And then maybe the next time, you try three nights.

When you think about something like boredom, instead of picking up your phone the instant you feel it, try mind wandering: go through that discomfort of boredom and see where it takes you.

According to research, being bored is associated with more creativity and better mental health. If I use my boredom to think internally, observe the outside world, perhaps try to work through a work- or home-related issue, that’s more productive than going on Instagram for the 79th time that day.

What can happen after you push the dial on your discomfort? What are the benefits of a three-day camping trip?

There’s something called the three-day effect that researchers have studied, showing that three days in the outdoors is associated with positive mental health benefits.  

When you first arrive in nature, you’re not quite dialed in. You might be worrying about what you left at home, for example. By Day 2, you’re feeling a little bit better, but you might be focusing on discomforts like the cold or your hunger. But by Day 3, you’ve relaxed and gotten out of your daily, super-hectic life that we tend to lead in the modern world, and you see things a bit differently. 

You’re going to learn something about yourself from putting yourself in positions of discomfort where you feel like you’re going to quit. But you’re going to come out on the other side, and once you come back into your normal life, I can guarantee you’re going to have much more appreciation for all of the amazing things we have in our lives. 

When I was in Alaska, I would have literally opened a vein to be able to stand in a long, winding line at my favorite restaurant, and wait for my order that may or may not be wrong. Putting yourself in times where you’re going to be a little uncomfortable is going to make you more appreciative of the amazing things we have.

Is it easy to forget the resources in your own backyard because you’re so used to the comforts of your current life?

Definitely, yes. A lot of people don’t realize that we have the most incredible outdoor spaces within a few hours of Las Vegas. 

We’re programmed to get into routine because it saves brain power. It’s a lot more comfortable to do the same thing, every single day, and live in these days that all sort of blend together. We tend to go on autopilot mode. So, figuring out ways to get out of that and do new things forces you to be present and aware of what’s happening in your life, because your brain doesn’t know what to anticipate when it’s a brand-new experience. It can also slow down your sense of time, which is why time seemed a lot slower when you were a kid — it’s because you were constantly learning and doing new things.

Everyone says they want to live longer – but if you’re living in this autopilot, fast-forward mode, what’s the difference? Go out and do a lot of new, cool, interesting things, and your life will seem a lot more packed with memories and interesting experiences.

Any final thoughts?

Today, our challenges and what makes us afraid can sometimes boil down to giving a presentation, and you stumble over a couple words. And on some days, that’s the worst that can happen to you. A few hundred years ago, we had to worry about having enough food that we didn’t die and having enough shelter so we didn’t die. We had to worry about animals lurking in the bushes.

My message in the book is: We need to start reintroducing some metaphorical tigers back into our life, so we can start to see that these things that we worry about and have so much anxiety over right now, they’re not real threats to our safety, and we have an outsize fear of them. How do I find opportunities that can help me realize that a lot of these things that I was worrying about, are perhaps not as worrisome as I thought?