Voluntary Discomfort: The Stoic Practice that Gets You Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Get uncomfortable – sleep a night on the floor.
This sounds unthinkable and ridiculous but it will actually do you good. I tried it myself – it’s tremendous! And after you’ve read the article, you’ll want to try it yourself.
The Stoics taught me this idea of voluntary discomfort. They occasionally practiced getting uncomfortable in order to be better off in the future.
The goal was not to punish themselves but to quiet their appetites for material possessions and sensual pleasures, increase the appreciation for what they already had, and to “vaccine” themselves against future misfortunes.
There’s a fable of Aesop that fits perfectly well:
A wild boar was sharpening his tusks against a tree when a fox came by and asked him why he was doing this. ‘I don’t see the reason,’ remarked the fox, ‘there are neither hunters nor hounds in sight; in fact right now I can’t see any threat at all.’ The boar replied, ‘True, but when danger does arise, I’ll have other things on my mind than sharpening my weapons.’
In times of peace, prepare for war.
Learn how to swim while it’s still safe and be prepared when the waves of tough-life will hit you eventually.
Voluntary discomfort is a fantastic tool to boost confidence and willpower. It’s the hard winter training that will transform you into the remarkable individual known for her courage and self-control.
Voluntary Discomfort: Get Uncomfortable to Become More Comfortable
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” – Seneca
The Stoics wanted tranquility of mind. They wanted to be able to stay calm in the face of adversity. Therefore they advocated preparing for tough situations in advance when it was still easy. They advised to toughen up before the shit eventually hit the fan (modern day speaking).
So what did they do?
As you have just learned in the above quote, Seneca advised to live as if you were poor for a few days. Wear shabby clothes (e.g. old jeans, a white T-shirt, no shoes), eat little and cheap food (e.g. rationed hard bread and water), and if you’re hardcore spend the night under a bridge. Basically, experience the life of a homeless (without the booze).
There are various degrees to try this. Maybe you just want to spend the day outdoors and the night somewhere safe. Maybe you just want to go a week with simple food such as bread and soup, or try fasting. Maybe you want to spend a month on a tight budget. Maybe you want to drink only water. For someone else it might be enough to go a month without buying anything but the essentials.
Experiencing temporary poverty will teach you different things. Such as the confidence that you can actually live on less. And you’ll learn to appreciate more what you’ve got. (We’ll look at benefits more specifically later on.)
Voluntary Uncomfortable Situations
He walked around Rome in unusual clothing so people would laugh at him. He walked barefoot and bareheaded in heat and rain. He put himself on a rationed diet.
Be yourself a Cato and put yourself in uncomfortable situations – on purpose.
Sounds counterproductive? Well, it’s actually the opposite.
So how can you put yourself in situations of discomfort which you easily could have avoided?
You could underdress for cold weather. That’s fun: You dress lightly when you know you’ll feel uncomfortably cold. (Just don’t catch a cold.)
You could pretend your bed isn’t there and sleep on the floor instead. Or pretend the hot water has been turned off and take an ice cold shower. Or pretend your car isn’t working and take the bus, or walk.
Here’s some inspiration from the military: “If it ain’t raining, it ain’t training.” Go for a toughness run because it’s raining.
The idea is this: Get yourself more uncomfortable than you’d usually be. It’ll make you stronger. Don’t just think about these things, but live them. And do it now, while things are good. As Seneca reminds us: “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress… If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”
Train before the crisis comes.
Purposefully Forgoing Pleasure
Instead of putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, you can also purposefully say no to pleasurable situations.
You might pass up an opportunity to drink a glass of wine – not because you fear becoming an alcoholic or because it’s unhealthy, but so you can learn self-control and experience discomfort.
Or you choose not to watch your favorite sports team, or you choose not to go partying with the lads, or you choose to say no to that chocolate cookie your grandma offers you.
It sounds as if the Stoics were seriously anti-pleasure.
Well, they weren’t. They just trained hard to become the persons who could do what others dreaded doing and resist doing what others couldn’t resist doing.
More on why to go through the pain of voluntary discomfort in the next part. First, let’s recap.
Quick Recap: The Stoic practice of voluntary discomfort can take three forms:
(1) Temporary poverty such as dressing in shabby clothes and sleeping under a bridge. (2) Voluntary uncomfortable situations such as taking a cold shower, underdressing for the cold weather, or pretending the car has broken down. (3) Forgo pleasures such as passing up a glass of wine or watching your favorite sports team.
The 6 Benefits of Voluntary Discomfort: Why You Should Get Uncomfortable
“But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what is not appropriate to him.” – Epictetus
The Stoics weren’t masochists. They didn’t go through rough discomforts to punish themselves, they had a clear goal in mind: they wanted to live better.
The Stoics wanted tranquility of mind, they wanted to stay calm in the face of adversity, they wanted supreme happiness or the eudemonic life.
That’s why they welcomed a degree of discomfort in their life. Not to make life harder, but to make it easier. And it’s not that they walked around flogging themselves. The discomforts they purposefully caused to happen were actually quite mild. Taking cold showers, going underdressed for the cold, sleeping on the floor, or going without food for a while all don’t sound like fun, but certainly like bearable. (Although, such discomforts actually can be fun. Read on.)
It’s funny. I grew up in a society that told me to avoid discomfort at all costs, now I believe this was counterproductive. It made me weak, insecure, and fearful.
Luckily, voluntary discomfort can fix this. *sigh of relief*
Jump into the benefits.
#1 Voluntary Discomfort as a Vaccine
By undertaking acts of discomfort you harden yourself against future misfortunes.
If you only know comfort, then you might be traumatized when you are forced to experience pain or any other sort of discomfort in the future, as you surely will eventually.
We want to experience some discomfort now so that we’ll be better prepared for future discomfort. And it’s not that walking barefoot will only help in the case we have no shoes, but also in other cases of discomfort. The vaccine is transferable if you will. It’s more about the feeling of discomfort that will decrease. You won’t feel uncomfortable anymore. Or at least less.
Optimally, you’ll be immune to discomfort. This shit can’t hurt you. As Seneca said, “If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”
And that’s what we do.
#2 Voluntary Discomfort as a Confidence Booster
Confidence is an immediate benefit.
After taking a cold shower or experiencing any other form of discomfort you will have the confidence that you can withstand major discomforts as well in the future.
Plus, you train yourself to be courageous. You did have the courage to do something uncomfortable now and you will have the courage to face difficult situations in the future.
Plus, you won’t be afraid of future discomforts anymore. You can take cold showers. You can sleep on the floor. You can go without food. So you are confident that you can bear discomforts when they come and your fear or insecurity of such situations vanishes.
I remember jumping from a diving platform as a kid. It took a lot of courage (and maybe some group pressure) to walk up the stairs and jump from 5 and later from the 10 meters (32ft) platform. Afterwards, I felt proud and confident that I could do it again. The fear was almost completely gone. I knew I can do it. And I still have this confidence. Jumping from heights is not one of my strengths, but I know I could do it.
#3 Voluntary Discomfort as an Appreciation Booster
Sleep a night on the floor – it’s worth the feeling of gratitude you’ll get the next night when you’re back in your cozy bed.
Take away some comfort from your life and it’ll remind you of how comfortable you actually have it. Whether it’s having enough food and water, or warm and nice clothes, hot water, fresh veggies and bread, or people who care about you… How likely are we to forget about the paradise we live in?
By purposefully forgoing some of our pleasures and comforts we can create a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude. Voluntary discomfort lets us enjoy more what we already have. And maybe, it takes away some of our cravings for more, more, more.
When was the last time you were grateful for toilet paper?
#4 Voluntary Discomfort as a Massive Willpower Booster
Saying no to pleasures is neither fun nor easy.
So is purposefully engaging in uncomfortable situations.
Those things require a lot of willpower and self-control. The cool thing is this: Willpower acts like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
I like to think of willpower as a liquid potion in a neat bottle. Similar to Asterix’ magic potion. Every time I do something that takes willpower, I take a sip of the potion. At some point in the day, the bottle will be empty, and I can’t get myself to do the things I actually wanted to do. That’s when late at night I suddenly binge eat a pack of M&Ms.
Now, when I train my willpower (every time I do something I dread doing) this willpower bottle gets bigger. So the next day I’ll have some more of the potion, like magic.
By practicing voluntary discomfort over a long period of time, “Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing.”
That’s how William B. Irvine puts it in his book The Guide to the Good Life. He goes on, “[The Stoics will] be thoroughly in control of themselves. The self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and this in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life.”
It’s simple, if we lack willpower and self-control we’ll be distracted and won’t be able to attain our goals in our world full of easily accessible pleasures.
Therefore we should take anything that helps us improve our willpower and self-control.
Let’s go and practice voluntary discomfort, especially forgoing pleasures. This is the perfect willpower training.
#5 Voluntary Discomfort as an Awareness Booster (!)
Getting uncomfortable on purpose is unusual. This will make you more aware.
When you’ve taken a hot shower every morning for the last two years, and then one day the hot suddenly changes into cold, you’ll be waaay more aware of it. *Brrr!* This is a new situation. This varies from the usual. And therefore you’ll find yourself more present in that exact moment. You’ll even tell your co-workers about your unusual morning shower.
And from now on, you’ll do such crazy things on purpose. You leave the comfort of routine. You step out of the highway on the dust road. This will feel differently. And suddenly you’re doing something and actively know that you’re doing it when you’re doing it.
That’s called awareness.
The hot shower in the morning might happen unconsciously, you do it every day, it feels like every day, and it’s nothing you’ll remember. The cold will give it a new touch, new life, new awareness.
We said that uncomfortable situations are not fun, but in such moments of awareness, it actually can be fun. You’ll laugh at yourself when you step out of the shower, shivering. You’ll laugh when you try to fall asleep on the floor, next to your bed. You’ll laugh when you’re freezing outside, knowing that you’re doing this on purpose.
#6 Voluntary Discomfort as a Health Booster
Ever heard about the benefits of taking a cold shower?
Depending on what uncomfortable situations you get yourself in, this will have additional benefits.
Here are just a few:
In a sense, we can benefit twice from voluntary discomfort. Once, because of all the benefits of the discomfort itself, and twice, because of what we do to cause the discomfort.
What are you waiting for? Get uncomfortable.
Get Uncomfortable Now to Be More Comfortable Tomorrow
That’s the whole point:
Get yourself in uncomfortable situations and you’ll be more comfortable in the future.
All this voluntary discomfort has nothing to do with punishment – it’s a self-improvement tool stolen from the Stoics.
And hey, this is not about eliminating comfort, it’s about expanding our comfort zones and getting more comfortable even in uncomfortable situations. It’s okay to have some comfort. It’s okay to sleep in a cozy bed. It’s okay to take hot showers. It’s okay to dress comfortably for the weather.
This is about periodically relinquishing some comfort in order to become a more resistant, confident, and more aware individual. You train yourself to be able to do the things that are tough. You train yourself to be able to say no to things that are hard to say no to. You train yourself to be able to be the person you want to be.
Remember what Epictetus said, it takes “hard winter training” to become such a strong person.
From nothing comes nothing. Sharpen your weapons now when it’s easy so that you’ll be prepared for when it gets hard. Learn how to swim before the waves of tough-life hit you. Because if you don’t, you’ll drown.
Start right now.
Choose one of the following and do it today:
Which one do you choose?