The Comfort Crisis

Cody Cassidy, CFP®

May 3, 2024

I often wake up around 2:00 a.m., a symptom of failing to fully turn off my brain for the night. Most of the time, I am back to sleep within twenty to thirty minutes, having resolved whatever debate I was having with myself. This one I can’t get out of my head or settle until the morning. My alarm is set to go off in ninety minutes, and forty-five minutes after that I need to be out the door. The 20-mile run ahead of me has me nervous and excited at the same time. I am already thinking about what it is going to take to complete this challenge, certainly a level of pain and a series of emotions that I know will show up, just not how or when. There is a little piece of me that starts to negotiate with myself the merits of actually doing this. I know this is going to be hard, painful and uncomfortable, but the comforting thought of finding a way out of this is alluring. If there is anything that I need to get out of my head, something I will not allow to be up for debate, it is the thought of choosing comfort over discomfort.

Comfort… bad. Discomfort… GOOD.

I am training for my first marathon, something that I decided to do in the fall when I was recovering from a broken foot. I was worried that I would use the excuse of recovery to get complacent. In my mind, resting on the couch with my foot in the air, limiting my activity levels in order to give my foot the time to heal, translated to staying comfortable. No way. I’m not going to put myself in a state of regression in order to heal.

The Science and Benefits of Discomfort

Michael Easter is a journalist who, a few years ago, embarked on a journey to explore what he called “The Comfort Crisis.” In his aptly titled book, he discusses the ways that our modern society tricks our brains into feeling rewarded for avoiding pain and discomfort that has led to sedentary lifestyles and, in turn poor health, disease and regression. According to Easter, “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.”

In other words, the only way to grow, to get better, is to put yourself through discomfort and endure. The body will only adapt to stress. When we are comfortable, we are not growing.

There is an accurate parallel here to investing and our financial plans. The training is not unlike our investment journey. Training for a marathon, or anything for that matter, is its own kind of investment. Just as we have to sacrifice our time, our bodies, and our comfort for physical improvement, we also have to make tough choices and be disciplined through good and bad markets. Our greatest strides toward financial success most often come when we stay oriented for the long-term outcomes we are trying to achieve. It is not a very comforting feeling to buy into the market when stock prices are falling. It feels counterintuitive, uncomfortable. William J. Bernstein, co-founder of the investment management firm Efficient Frontier Advisors and author of “The Four Pillars of Investing,” cautions, “Do not underestimate the courage it takes to hold stocks during the worst of times, let alone to purchase more. Holding and buying assets that everyone else is running from takes more fortitude than many investors can manage.” That’s exactly the point. We are on our way to our best when we are willing to endure the discomfort.

Staying Disciplined and Seeing Results

My marathon training was going great… until it wasn’t. A few weeks ago, in the middle of my training cycle, I burned out during what should have been an easy run. This hit me hard. For the next week, I was tired, sore and in pain. All of my workouts that week were hard, each of them a physical slog and a mental beat down. The doubts were creeping into my head the entire time. With everything I have put into this, how am I not getting any better? Is this investment even worth it? Is this working?

In times like this, there is only one thing to do. Stay disciplined. The week after I burned out, while I was still tired and beat up, I hit every training session, every goal and pushed my target paces. I took advantage of being down by buying more. According to Michael Easter, “Doing physically hard things is an enormous life hack. Do hard things and the rest of life gets easier and you appreciate it all the more.” Rarely do we experience buyer’s remorse by choosing the tougher, less comfortable pathway.

I’ve been up since 2:00 a.m., but that doesn’t matter. It’s time to train. I get out of my car and quickly exhale from the sharp stab of the cold morning air. It’s 29 degrees on The Chuck Huckleberry Loop that runs through Tucson, Marana, and Oro Valley. I can only see what my headlamp illuminates three feet in front of me. I am alone, cold, exposed and uncomfortable. This is going to be challenging. It’s going to hurt. Nevertheless, I persist. As I stride into my warm-up and struggle with cold, aching muscles, I can’t help but smile. There it is… the first pangs of discomfort.


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