Comfort and Happiness

We too often mistake comfort for happiness

I read this phrase in a travel blog somewhere about six years ago, before I ventured out of my Midwestern comfort zone to study abroad in Argentina (I can’t remember the blog I read it in, but I’d like to give credit if someone is familiar). I didn’t understand the simple truth of this phrase six years ago. It’s a truth that is profound and complex, as powerful as it is parsimonious.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand it now. I know my understanding of this phrase has deepened and evolved as I navigate the twisty-turny ups and downs of my 20s. I find it to be a simple guide for decision making on and off the bike. Comfort is often easy to obtain—simple and tempting, while happiness is hard and often requires some degree of suffering or sacrifice.

A State of Comfort

I firmly believe lasting physical comfort is out of our control. If I try to navigate life deriving pleasure solely from physical indulgences, I might feel good short-term, but long-term I’ll be left empty, in need of something more substantial. (Side note: I’d argue that consumerism is basically a product of America’s tendency to mistake comfort for happiness). I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to cycling is because the sport is a constant invitation to sacrifice your current state of physical comfort for greater long-term happiness and personal growth. One of my teammates said it perfectly last week when she shared with me her secret for success on the bike, “Bike racing is just about getting over how you’re feeling at any given time.” The discomfort of chasing up to a break or staying with the lead group on a climb is physical, short-term, and fleeting. Being successful as a racer means learning to be okay being with the discomfort.

Over the past month, while I traveled with old friends and new and contemplated where I’d like to be in the next two years, my thinking has come back to this simple truth a lot. I’ve applied it to my goals off the bike and on the bike, and while these thoughts are far from complete I’m sharing them here as they begin to take shape.

Off the bike

I just returned to Saint Louis from traveling, training, and visiting some of the best humans the world can put forward. Travel is a funny thing, I find that when I’m removed from my alcove of physical possessions and familiarity I gain the most perspective on myself. I experienced this phenomenon for the first time when living abroad. Arriving in a foreign country completely alone I was totally removed from my primary socialized surroundings; I was removed from the culture in which I was raised and removed from the conventional social interactions I had naively accepted as normal. I was forced to question which aspects of the typical American college life defined me and which socialized behaviors had I mistakenly adopted as my own.

The Learning Curve

Travel helped me begin to question social structures of knowledge and to identify bias behind what I’d accepted as fact. It lead me to another simple and profound truth: the foundation behind post-modernism—there is no absolute truth. That was pretty uncomfortable for a 20 year old college kid. I certainly had days in Argentina where I laid in bed all day binge watching Mad Men and dreaming of returning to the safety of familiar American culture. But my introduction to a new set of standards opened my eyes to the idea that what’s comfortable isn’t necessarily what’s right. I came home feeling completely upside down. I’d figured out enough to know that for the first 20 years of my life I’d mistaken comfort for happiness. When I didn’t have the comfort of my familiar surroundings and no longer had a learned social manual that enabled me to navigate interactions discretely, my raw mental state was revealed to me as maybe not the most happy. I was on a good path though. The first step to creating my own happiness was exposure to an alternative social landscape, where I could identify options for myself outside the typical mold of an American liberal arts student.

Fast forward six years, I’m still learning not to mistake comfort for happiness. I think as humans we really tend to stick to what is comfortable, so much so we even abandon our dreams to avoid potential discomfort. Change is hard. Before I left Saint Louis I would have said that I was pretty happy here, but what I really am is comfortable. I have a stable job, a nice apartment, and a flexible schedule that allows me to do things like train, race, and go ride my bike for a month. But most of my days here are spent in a cubicle inside an office building, and while that’s comfortable, it’s far from happy. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to remove myself from my daily life because it helped me identify my goals for the next year as I consider various career and living situations. I’m ready for a little less comfort and a little more adventure.

On the Bike

I practice yoga pretty regularly, and one of the things I’ve learned is that the posture starts when comfort ends. I’ve learned to breathe through discomfort, to find ease with effort, and smile because I know I won’t be holding this chair pose for the rest of my life. I learn to not let fear of falling hold me back, like trying an inversion for the first time even if I’m well aware of the risk that I land on my face. The unfamiliar disguises itself as scary but really it’s just new; it’s just uncomfortable. I keep practicing yoga because these skills translate to life, and to racing my bike.

I honestly don’t know what the final tally of mileage was from my month of training, but I’m guessing somewhere around 1,500 miles. Not all of them were hard days, but a few stuck out as the hardest efforts I’ve put forth since last season. Like one day in particular where the truth of my teammates phrase rang really true. The team was riding a hard group ride in Naples aptly named Hour of Power. Four of us were rotating on the front and missed a left turn. We went straight and the group turned. Debbie looked at us and said without hesitation “lets go get `em.” We started the chase pulling through around 28-30 mph. The group was going to average 26-27 mph so if we wanted to catch them we were going to have to ride hard. About three minutes into the chase I told our director, who was in the chase with us, that I needed to skip a pull. He looked at me, and said “No, this is training, suck it up.” So I did. We continued to rotate through. I got over how bad my legs were feeling. And 13 minutes at 277 watts NP later we caught the group. Cyclo-sphere data below. The chase effort was so hard we canceled the training we had scheduled for the afternoon. Afterwards, I thanked Andrew and Debbie for pushing me outside my comfort zone, and they reiterated that cycling is all about learning to suffer.

I’ve set a lot of personal and team goals for this season, but underlying all of them is the simple truth of learning to be okay with discomfort. I think the most important lesson I took away from the month of training was that my brain is going to say that I can’t far before my body will. When I had the external pressure of someone else saying,” no, you’re fine, keep going,” I did, and I pushed myself to a level I didn’t know I could. Comfort is easy. Giving up is easy. Chasing the pack, pushing past mental limits, and suffering through is hard.

My biggest goal for this season is to remember in every situation, don’t mistake comfort for happiness. What’s easy isn’t always what’s right.

Hannah Shell