Former Men’s Health author goes on a month-long trip to remote Alaska in order to find out why all of the comforts of modern life are in fact making us miserable. He returns and consults a huge amount of experts and studies to make a tight case for it.
🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
- The comforts of modern society are quite probably acting against us and cause us to be less healthy and feel unfulfilled.
- A possible way to reconnect with what we have evolved to live like is to seek adventures in the outdoors which aren’t comfortable.
- Some starting points include to eliminate screens, to embrace boredom because our brains need it, to exhaust ourselves physically for better sleep, and eat foods which have a good calorie density, i.e. contain enough calories as well as are filling, such as whole grains, tubers, veggies, and low fat animal protein.
I got the recommendation to read this book from the financial advice blog called Mr. Money Mustache, which I’ve been following for years. While the financial side of that blog is its central point, the lifestyle aspects surrounding making clever financial decisions play a big role in the blog, too. It’s all about living frugal and making the most out of life while still spending less than you earn.
The author of this book, Michael Easter, who is a former writer for Men’s Health magazine, caught the attention of Mr. Money Mustache, who then decided to write a full blog post about the topic of this book, “The Comfort Crisis”. Two similar minds had found each other. That way, my interest was sparked.
Ever since I became aware of the existence of such people as David Goggins or Jocko Willinck, the suggestion to seek discomfort for a more fulfilled life had settled in my mind. I think it’s quite convincing that our modern lifestyle probably isn’t perfect for what we as humans have evolved to do over millions of years, resulting in various so-called diseases of civilization and a growing mental health crisis. Most people would agree that we aren’t built to sit in an office chair all day and lie on a couch for the rest of the day, but we still do it. I’m convinced that we should thrive to overhaul our way of living so it better fits what we are designed to do. Of course we can’t all become hunters in the tundra, but some steps can certainly be taken. Too much comfort clearly isn’t good for us. That’s why the book’s title grabbed me immediately.
The book is detailing a trip to remote Alaska which the author did together with two experienced outdoorsy people. The trip lastest for a bit more than a month, during which they had no cellphone coverage, no infrastructure, and nothing but the untouched wilderness of the vast undeveloped state around them. The defined goal was to find and hunt a caribou, also called reindeer. For Michael Easter, this was a first and he had minimal outdoor experience, so he could take us readers on a journey which would have probably similarly challenged us.
The story itself is interesting enough for a book, but Easter cleverly interjects it with topically fitting chapters about the physiological and mental aspects he is currently encountering during the trip. For example, when he describes the sort of freeze-dried food they are eating, or the way they are sleeping on the hard forest ground, he follows it up with presenting a bunch of studies on nutrition and sleep respectively, always contrasting what people do these days as opposed to what people evolved to be best at. The idea being that the necessary behavior this Alaska trip produces, is the kind of behavior us humans are actually better suited for, even though it seems like it’s just hugely uncomfortable all the time.
Some ideas he observed and explains are so simple we already know them, e.g. how bad looking at screens the whole day actually is. In Alaska, it took him just a few hours to get over the habit of checking the phone all the time and he immediately felt a lot better. Others are a bit counter-intuitive, such as how boredom is actually a necessary state for us which our brains need to form connections, become creative, and make plans. Modern society aims to eliminate boredom because it feels unpleasant but that’s not helpful for us.
There are some interesting bits to take away from his talks about nutrition as well. A lot has been said on the topic, of course, but his focus on calorie density is something that was new to me at least. He talks about several interviews he’s led with nutritional experts and cites a bunch of studies for it, which he does for all of the subjects, by the way, and offers the knowledge drop that foods which have a good ratio of total calorie to how filling they are, are best suited for us. The two extreme examples are a shot glass of olive oil, which has around 500 calories but isn’t filling at all, and 2.5 pounds of lettuce, which in total has just 60 calories but would fill us up easily. The foods which are in the middle of those two are incidentally those we all already know to be healthy: whole grains, tubers like potatoes, veggies in general, but also low fat animal protein.
Now, as a vegetarian myself I have a problem with him describing vegetarianism and veganism as just another fad like the paleo, keto, and intermittent fasting fads. Not eating animals is special, because it’s the only dietary concept which includes an ethics factor and an environmental argument at the core of it. All of the others just focus on what might benefit the human – but we’re not alone here, and we have a planet to maintain in a sustainable way. No acknowledgment for that on his side, though.
Anyways, there’s a lot else to take away from the book and with the Alaska adventure giving it all a real-world framing it stays interesting for the whole time. The big finale at the end, which I’m not giving away here, was a major page-turner for me as I haven’t experienced in a long time. Incredibly well written. The way he then moves into the philosophical realm and talks about existential human fears rounds the whole picture off nicely.
To me, this is a five star book and probably one of the best I have read this year.
🍀 How the Book Changed Me
- It further confirmed that I’m doing the right thing using my bicycle as my main mode of transport throughout the freezing winter and rainy fall and spring as well. Not just for environmental reasons, which were my main points, but also because it’s good for us humans to be uncomfortable.
- Although I love listening to a bunch of different podcasts while I’m biking or running, I have reduced this now because of the presented arguments in favor of more boredom. Our brains need time to digest and not get bombarded with new information round the clock, and I must say it feels good and I develop more ideas this way.
- Thinking more about which daily problems are real problems and which are just the result of “problem creep”, because of lowering our society’s threshold for what we feel like is a problem. This framing makes it possible to eliminate some forms of stress.
One: 33 Days
We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged, safety-netted lives. And it’s limiting the degree to which we experience our “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver put it.
But a radical new body of evidence shows that people are at their best—physically harder, mentally tougher, and spiritually sounder—after experiencing the same discomforts our early ancestors were exposed to every day. Scientists are finding that certain discomforts protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, and even more fundamental issues like feeling a lack of meaning and purpose.
Two: 35, 55, or 75
But I was more aware, which allowed me to see that I was still surrounded in comfort. I was marinating in the stuff. Except that these were less acutely destructive but potentially more insidious forms of it. I just had to take a look at my everyday life. I was comfortable, quite literally, every single moment. I awoke in a soft bed in a temperature-controlled home. I commuted to work in a pickup with all the conveniences of a luxury sedan. I killed any semblance of boredom with my smartphone. I sat in an ergonomic desk chair staring at a screen all day, working with my mind and not my body. When I arrived home from work, I filled my face with no-effort, highly caloric foods that came from Lord knows where. Then I plopped down on my overstuffed sofa to binge [..].
Three: 0.004 Percent
In an uncomfortable world, consistently seeking a sliver of comfort helped us stay alive. Our common problem today is that our environment has changed, but our wiring hasn’t. And this wiring is deeply ingrained.
Constant comfort is a radically new thing for us humans.
Four: 800 Faces
He called this “prevalence- induced concept change.” Essentially “problem creep.” It explains that as we experience fewer problems, we don’t become more satisfied. We just lower our threshold for what we consider a problem. We end up with the same number of troubles. Except our new problems are progressively more hollow.
This creep phenomenon applies directly to how we now relate to comfort, said Levari. Call it comfort creep. 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.
“In modern society, however,” Elliott said, “it’s suddenly possible to survive without being challenged. You’ll still have plenty of food. You’ll have a comfortable home. A good job to show up to, and some people who love you. And that seems like an OK life, right?
We have no idea what exists on the edges of our potential. And by not having any idea what it’s like out on the edge… man, we really miss something vital.”
“Misogi [a traditional Japanese cleansing ritual] is not about physical accomplishment,” said Parrish. “It asks, ‘What are you mentally and spiritually willing to put yourself through to be a better human?’ Misogis have allowed me to let go of fear and anxiousness, and you can see that in my work.”
Lapsing into flow requires two conditions: The task must stretch a person’s limits and it must have a clear goal.
But all of that silent, solitary time running, riding, or swimming—becoming comfortable with discomfort, persisting despite all of his biological impulses telling him to slow down or tap out—had remodeled his psyche. “Endurance sports gave me some understanding of what it was to push to deeper levels and find new layers within myself,” he told me.
“Misogis can show you that you had this latent potential you didn’t realize, and that you can go further than you ever believed. When you put yourself in a challenging environment where you have a good chance of failing, lots of fears fade and things start moving.”
“In our model of misogi, there are only two rules,” said Elliott. “Rule number one is that it has to be really fucking hard. Rule number two is that you can’t die.”
“We’re generally guided by the idea that you should have a fifty percent chance of success—if you do everything right,”
But if you’ve never run more than ten miles, think you could probably run fifteen, but are iffy on whether you could run twenty… then that twenty-five miles is probably a misogi.”
New research shows that depression, anxiety, and feeling like you don’t belong can be linked to being untested.
The first [key element of a Misogi] is separation. The person exits the society in which they live and ventures into the wild. The second is transition. The person enters a challenging middle ground, where they battle with nature and their mind telling them to quit. The third is incorporation. The person completes the challenge and reenters their normal life an improved person. It’s an exploration and expansion of the edge of a person’s comfort zone.
Misogi, Elliott said, is the same. “Misogis are an emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenge that masquerades as a physical challenge.”
We’ve now deteriorated from helicopter parenting to snowplow parenting. These parents violently force any and all obstacles out of their child’s path.
A study found that anxiety and depression rates in college students rose roughly 80 percent in the generation just after helicopter parenting began.
Which brought Elliott to guideline two: Don’t advertise misogi. It’s OK to talk about misogi with friends and family. But you don’t Tweet, Instagram, Facebook, or boast about misogi. “Everyone today has such outward-facing lives,” said Elliott. “They do stuff so they can post on social media about some badass thing they did to get a bunch of likes.
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.
This is why the scientists also believe that an outdoor test like a backcountry hunt or summiting a mountain can be better than more “contrived” challenges, like organized urban marathons or team sports.
Seven: 50. 70. Or 90.
We all suck at new things. But clumsily exiting our comfort zones offers way too many upsides to ignore.
This slowing down of time is something Parrish told me happens in misogi. “I become incredibly focused on the task at hand,” he said. “When I look back on a misogi that was a few hours it will seem like days, because I remember every detail.”
Eight: 150 People.
Dunbar explained it like this: “Human societies contained buried within them a natural grouping of around 150 people…. It’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Eleven: 11 Hours, 6 Minutes.
Boredom is indeed dead. And one scientist way up north in Ontario, Canada, is discovering that this is bad. A type of bad that’s infected us all. He believes that our collective lack of boredom is not only burning us out and leading to some ill mental health effects, but also muting what boredom is trying to tell us about our mind, emotions, ideas, wants, and needs.
So many podcasts feature some “top performer” or “life-hacker” guest. They tell us doing nothing is akin to dying and that we must therefore perform all of their complicated rituals to achieve optimum focus and machine-like productivity.
But new science is revealing that those otherwise brilliant philosophers and today’s productivity gurus are clueless about boredom’s potential, said Danckert.
People are then spurred to do something about their boredom. “Tolstoy had this great quote in Anna Karenina that says boredom is a ‘desire for desires,’ ” said Danckert. “So boredom is a motivational state.”
The 11 hours and 6 minutes of attention we’re handing over to digital media isn’t free. It’s all spent in focused mode. Think of this focused state like lifting a weight, and the unfocused state like resting. When we kill boredom by burying our minds in a phone, TV, or computer, our brain is putting forth a shocking amount of effort.
Our collective lack of boredom may be causing us to reach near-crisis levels of mental fatigue. Research shows that the onslaught of screen-based media has created Americans who are “increasingly picky, impatient, distracted, and demanding,” as one media analyst put it. These terms fall under the umbrella of “insufferable.” And overworked, undermaintained minds are linked to depression, life dissatisfaction, the perception that life goes by quicker, and increasingly missing the beauty of life that only presents itself when we allow our mind to wander and be aware of something other than a screen.
Scientists at Oregon State University found that daily stressors like lines and waits can improve our resistance to some brain diseases if we simply suffer through them and shrug them off. More of these everyday stressors are actually better for our brain.
Twelve: 20 Minutes, 5 Hours, 3 Days
In today’s economy, where people can’t detach from work emails, nearly a quarter to half of all employees say they’re burned out. Nature may be the best recovery tool for the condition, said Hopman. Say mind-wandering at home is akin to taking a hot bath after a tough workout. Mind-wandering in nature might be like taking that hot bath, then drinking a protein shake and getting a massage.
As the University of Michigan scientists found, the ideal quick dose is 20 minutes, three times a week, of this, let’s call it, “urban nature” that’s found in cities, suburbs, and towns. But we can be even lazier than that and still experience benefits. Hopman began firing off facts about just how little nature it takes to be better off.
Fractals are organized chaos, which our brains apparently dig.
Three or more days in the wild is like a meditation retreat. Except talking is allowed and the experience is free of costs and gurus.
The students’ day-one brain waves were beta waves. These are frenetic, type-A, go-go-go waves. But by day three they’d be riding what are called alpha and theta waves. These are the same waves found in experienced meditators and people who have lapsed into an effortless flow state.
Thirteen: 12 Places.
Winter says most modern sleep problems are caused by the fact that we are rarely in adequate darkness and silence—two nighttime qualities that humans evolved to sleep in. The fact that we rarely physically exhaust ourselves also factors in.
Our brains are wired to think loud = danger. We react by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, stress hormones that kick on the fight-or-flight response. Our doses of noise-induced stress hormones used to be infrequent but lifesaving. Today’s jarring background noises spur the same fight-or-flight response.
Fourteen: ~4,000 Calories
Just 3 percent of the people who lose weight in a given year manage to keep it off. Their secret isn’t some special food or exercise no one else has. It’s their ability to get comfortable with discomfort.
“Processing food is literally the cornerstone of human civilization. Hunting, foraging, and farming only go so far. It’s keeping food that’s hard. It used to be that you could only grow food a few months out of the year and then you’d just pray to whatever deities you worship that the food wouldn’t spoil or be eaten by bugs until the next growing season.”
“Processed food is not always junk, but junk is usually processed. I do think junk food is unhealthy, but it’s not because sugar is ‘toxic’ or any of that nonsense,” he said. “It’s mainly because it’s more calorie dense, less filling, and is more likely to lead someone to overeat and gain weight. And being overweight or obese is one of the largest risk factors for disease.”
Kashey knew that even though weight gain or loss is mainly driven by how much food a person eats, how much food a person eats is driven by everything that is happening in his or her life.
A person should mostly be eating unprocessed whole grains and tubers, fruits and vegetables, and lowish-fat animal protein.”
Fifteen: 12 to 16 Hours
Our growing disconnection from hunger is one of the critical reasons obesity began its rocket-like rise in the late 1970s.
“During [extended time without food], the body doesn’t shut down, it ramps up,” Dr. Jason Fung, a nephrologist and author of The Obesity Code, told me. “Think about a hungry wolf versus a lion who just ate. Which one is more focused? The hungry wolf.”
And researchers at Harvard report that occasional 24-hour stints without food can help reduce our appetite during our normal eating hours. This decreases average levels of insulin, a hormone that may determine the body’s “set weight.” The researchers also say these longer fasts may better stimulate cleaning out our old cells.
And we must also understand and adapt to the fact that much of our hunger isn’t real physiological hunger. Rather, it’s often a cheap coping mechanism to comfort us against the discomforts of modern life.
Sixteen: 3 Good Legs
Indeed, if someone has a moral or ethical objection to taking an animal’s life for human use, it is logical that he or she be a dedicated vegetarian and not require others, perhaps in a fish market or slaughterhouse, to end lives for their benefit; many make that decision.”
Seventeen: 12/31, 11:59:33 p.M.
Existential philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.”
[..] once you get past the 25 percent or so poorest countries on earth, where the only question is survival and subsistence, there is no relationship between gross national product, per capita income, any of those things, and levels of happiness.”
But some scholars have argued that American attempts to dematerialize are just another form of materialism. As University of Iowa anthropologist Meena Khandelwal put it, we now simplify not because we’re “surrendering ourselves to some higher reality,” like the khenpo, but rather because minimalism looks good on Instagram.
When a person realizes death is imminent, their checklist and everyday bullshit becomes irrelevant and their mind begins to center on that which makes it happy. Research from Australia found that the top regrets of the dying include not living in the moment, working too often, and living a life the person thinks they should rather than one they truly want to.
The Buddha’s final words were on impermanence, a reminder that all things die. “All things change. Whatever is born is subject to decay…,” he said. “All individual things pass away.”
“You must think of mitakpa [impermanence] three times each day. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. You must be curious about your death. You must understand that you don’t know how you will die or where you will die. Just that you will die.
Eightteen: 11 Minutes, 20 Seconds
Disney movies have led people to believe that nature is this harmonious place. It’s not. Nature can be brutal.” Philosophers call this flawed-but-common thinking the “appeal to nature” fallacy. It’s the belief, argument, or rhetorical tactic that proposes that anything “natural” is good, harmonious, and morally correct.
Nineteen: 100+ Pounds
The brain uses the “unpleasant [but illusory] sensations of fatigue” to pump the body’s brakes well before a person comes close to real physical exhaustion, Noakes discovered. Which explains Elliott’s observations on limits.
Brazilian researchers found that people who are able to detach from their emotions during exercise—for example, not thinking about or putting a negative valence on their burning lungs and legs—almost always perform better.
Early humans walked and ran long distances across untamed earth. Studies show it was not uncommon for these hunters to run and walk more than 25 miles in a day. We call that a marathon. They called it “picking up dinner.”
“Everyone thinks persistence hunting is purely a physical act,” he said. “We underestimate the intellectual side of it.” As the bushmen run, they must also consider animal behavior and biology, land patterns, tracking, pacing, and far more.
Twenty: ≤50 Pounds
“If you can consciously put yourself through physical discomfort and understand the higher purpose of it, the ‘why,’ the mental calluses that come along with that create what is called the Well of Fortitude,”
Many people think that too much exercise can cause heart attacks. But there was also no excess risk posed by exercising even ten times the amount the government recommends, [..].
Nearly all researchers agree that strength and cardio can’t be an either/ or proposition. “Endurance exercise is not muscle building, and it probably isn’t even muscle maintaining,”
Humans evolved doing physical work with friends, and sociality is deeply intertwined with effort. Being social while actively hunting and gathering improved our success and survival, according to research in Nature.
Twenty-One: 80 Percent
“A much more healthful recipe would be more gentle exercise throughout the day,” said McGill. Running the body through all the movements it can do: squat, lunge, plank, hinge, hang, twist, carry, bend, and more.
Epilogue: 81.2 Years
As we evolved we developed a mutually beneficial alliance with many of these microscopic living organisms. We gave them a home and they built our immune system and stress tolerance, helping us avoid sickness and become more robust and resilient. This is no revolutionary idea. It’s exactly how vaccines work. Our bodies build immunity by experiencing an imitation of a bug.