There are many ways we seek comfort in life. We can find it in a warm shower, a fuzzy cuddle with a cat, or a night on the couch with no obligations.
But according to a new study, our desire for comfort could be holding us back when it comes to personal growth. If we want to improve ourselves and achieve our goals, we may want to start actively seeking out discomfort.
Researchers Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago conducted five different experiments in which over 2,100 people were engaging in personal growth activities. They ranged from taking improv classes to journaling about their emotions to learning about COVID-19, gun violence, and opposing political viewpoints.
In each activity, researchers told some participants that their goal was to feel uncomfortable and (depending on the activity) awkward, nervous, anxious, or even upset. They were told to push past their comfort zone and know that feeling uncomfortable is a sign that the activity is working.
Other participants weren’t told to embrace discomfort; instead, they simply focused on learning something or noticing if the exercise was working and how they were developing their skills.
Ultimately, the researchers found that people who aimed to be uncomfortable were more engaged in their activities, felt more motivated to keep doing them, and believed they made more progress toward their goals compared to those who weren’t seeking out this kind of vulnerability.
For example, improv students spent more time in the spotlight on stage and did wackier things. Journalers were more interested in writing another difficult, emotional diary entry in the future. And other people were more motivated to read challenging but informative articles—about COVID, about gun violence, or from a news source they wouldn’t usually read, whether the New York Times or Fox News.
“Growing is often uncomfortable; we found that embracing discomfort can be motivating,” write Woolley and Ayelet. “People should seek the discomfort inherent in growth as a sign of progress instead of avoiding it.”
Seeing discomfort as a sign of progress can be motivating, the researchers believe, because we often see it as the opposite: a sign that there’s a problem.
When we’re trying something outside our comfort zone—whether learning a language, going to therapy, or confronting our unconscious biases—feeling awkward can make us believe we’re not cut out for it. We might do as much as possible to minimize our discomfort by hanging back and letting others take the lead, or keeping our minds closed to provocative new information. Or we might just quit.
Instead, embracing discomfort turns a negative into a positive experience—a sign that we’re on the right path and that what we’re feeling is perfectly normal. This may open us up to take more risks and really dive in.
This study aligns with other research that suggests we can reframe the way we think about negative experiences: When we reinterpret our anxiety as excitement, we sing more beautifully in front of strangers; when we see stress as helping us perform better, we’re better at managing it and staying open to feedback.
All this research goes to show that we might be judging normal human experiences like nervousness, stress, and discomfort too harshly. While our inclination might be to avoid them, they seem to be part of becoming better people and living a rich life.