ICE Book Review – The Comfort Crisis

By Rob Cooney (@EMEducation)

The Comfort Crisis
By Michael Easter

Rule 1: Make it Really Hard

Rule 2: Don’t Die

I have a bit of a novel book for you this month. I’ve always enjoyed books that use a narrative to explain scientific findings and how we might apply them to our daily lives (see works by Atul Gawande, Michael Pollin, and Christopher McDougall). Michael Easter’s first work fits within this category and I think is particularly relevant to current educators.

In The Comfort Crisis, Easter argues that modern society has become too comfortable, and this has contributed to our declining health, happiness, and sense of purpose. As medical educators, I think it’s valuable to understand how comfort may impact wellbeing so we can help ourselves, our students and our colleagues cultivate healthy balances.

The big take home from this book is that some discomfort is necessary for growth, health, and satisfaction. Challenges build physical and mental strength. Yet today’s technologies and conveniences shield us from desirable difficulties, hindering resilience.

Relatedly, comfort often distracts us from more meaningful pursuits. Activities like distractedly scrolling social media or binge-watching your favorite streaming service provide instant gratification (hello, dopamine!) but displace activities that may provide lasting fulfillment, like developing skills, helping others, and building relationships. The book cites studies linking excessive screen time to depression and loneliness. 

Discomfort also plays a role in learning. Learning is HARD! It requires sustained focus, struggling with difficult concepts, and correcting mistakes. Yet education has increasingly prioritized student comfort over rigor, with counterproductive effects on outcomes. Fostering grit and perseverance is vital.

Physical comfort has tradeoffs too. While modern amenities like cars, computers, and temperature-controlled buildings ease our day to day lives they also reduce overall daily movement – contributing to rising inactivity and obesity. Interacting with natural environments and variable weather provides health benefits as well. The book advocates balancing comfort with some constructive discomfort by getting outside, carrying heavy things, getting cold, etc.

Additional ideas from the book relevant for medical educators:

  • Discomfort builds empathy. Challenges allow us to relate to those facing adversity. Cushioned lives can breed self-absorption and disconnection.
  • Discomfort unites people. Shared challenging experiences bond people together. Hardship can reveal our shared humanity.  Anyone who’s going through residency can appreciate this fact.
  • Discomfort makes people happier. Studies show people are happier when engaged in challenging activities rather than passive leisure. Effort and progress provide fulfillment.
  • Discomfort reduces stress. Facing fears and building skills increase confidence in handling adversity. Too much security prevents resilience.

In summary, The Comfort Crisis makes a compelling case that integrating discomfort into our lives offers benefits for health, learning, purpose, and community. As medical educators, we can apply insights from the book to help our students develop the skills, grit, empathy, and wisdom to thrive personally and professionally.

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