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June 12th, 2021
What is the difference between happiness and comfort? The two are clearly related, but the difference is as important as it is overlooked in current times. The common logic is to maximize comfort. We have the idea that maximizing comfort should lead to happiness. If you are completely comfortable, what do you have to complain about? And if there’s nothing to complain about, shouldn’t that mean you are happy?
Unfortunately not. The strange thing about happiness is how much discomfort is actually involves. Perhaps consumerist culture has something to do with this. Much of our economics is driven by the possibility of giving something easier and more relaxing to the consumer. Make someone’s life easier and you can make a million. This is the underlying tenant of all things luxury, and luxury is what everyone pines for, not just because it looks fun and relaxing, but it’s only available to those we deem ‘successful’. It’s not just a matter of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. With the combination of luxury and it’s availability to only the wealthy, The situation on the other side of the fence isn’t just greener grass. There’s a beach over there, and fancy cars, and pretty people and spectacular trips. Who needs greener grass when there’s so many better things on offer?
There’s a counter-intuitive asymmetry with the pairing of luxury and success. Granted some wealthy people are just lucky, they are born into it, but such a fact just isn’t a possibility nor a concern for someone who isn’t lucky in such ways. The only other alternative is to work very hard and perhaps be smart about exactly what to work hard on and how to work hard. Certainly there is still a great deal of luck involved in the possibility of significantly levelling up one’s situation into a position of wealth. But that luck just about always requires a good deal of hard work. Leisure and hard work are obvious antonyms. Strangely, we can probably say the same thing about comfort and happiness.
Comfort doesn’t lead to happiness because happiness requires some of the opposite. The missing key to understanding and generating happiness is that it’s more about viable agency than it is comfort. Happiness requires effort that actually has an effect. Effort without the pay off you’re hoping for feels like failure. And learning is where these two things intersect. It’s when you put in effort which doesn’t have the effect you were hoping for, but you get feedback on what effect you actually did have which allows you to change your tactic. Learning is failure plus feedback giving rise to novel effort.
Maximizing comfort leads to atrophy. We lose our muscles if we don’t lose them, and if our whole being is too comfort, we’ll lose our skills, and skills are the core of our agency - our ability to have an effect on the world. Is it any surprise that comfort doesn’t lead to happiness? Maximizing happiness is, oddly, a lot of work. But work that is absolutely worth doing.