The Quiet Power of Rejecting "Comfort Creep"
On what lowering your expectations can do for your contentment levels
Paid subscribers, listen to the audio version - narrated by me - here
“WELL BLOW ME, IT’S A FULL-SIZED FRIDGE!”
“OMG this bed has a full-sized duvet AND a supportive mattress.”
“There is an oven. SAM, THERE IS AN OVEN.”
It really doesn’t take much to make me happy these days. I’ve spent 2.5 years living in short-term accommodation of wildly differing quality and I can tell you, you notice when your comfort is taken away:
The unsupportive double bed with a duvet barely bigger than a single.
The mini fridge that can’t hold even a day’s worth of food.
There is nothing quite like getting that comfort back. Suddenly a comfy bed isn’t just a comfy bed, it’s a the best bed you’ve ever slept on. A radiator isn’t just a radiator, it’s something you’re so happy to see, you could kiss it (if that wasn’t so ouchy).
I’ve said it a hundred times before to my husband Sam and I’m saying it to you lovely lot now. If you want to level up your contentment and happiness, reset your comfort levels and lower your expectations.
It’s only then you can resist the lull of what I call Comfort Creep.
Comfort Creep is like lifestyle creep. We need far more now than we used to in order to be “comfortable”. It’s insidious and has quietly happened to us whilst we weren’t paying attention.
Whilst once you would have been content with a black and white TV, now it has to be a 60-inch TV with surround sound and every single movie at your fingertips.
Whilst once a car was a metal bucket on wheels - and you loved it for that - now it has to have a dashboard that looks like a spaceship and does everything except drive the damn thing for you (yet).
Companies know this and they play on it. The amount of stuff out there designed to enhance your comfort just a little bit more is staggering, from smart fridges that play your Spotify playlist to lighting you can control from your phone.
Call me curmudgeonly but I don’t buy it. I worry we’ll all end up like those dudes on WALL-E, floating around on our do-everything-for-us beds.
Comfort is a human need, but modern life takes it too far. Our expectations of what we want from our home, our car, and our stuff is sky-high, exactly because of Comfort Creep.
And I’m not convinced it does any of us any good.
There is plenty of research to suggest that I’m right. Here’s one such example:
In his new book, The Comfort Crisis, Easter makes the case that modern life may be too cushy for our emotional and psychological well-being. When all of our most fundamental needs (food, warmth, safety) are so thoroughly and perpetually satisfied, he says we not only lose our appreciation for what we have but we also “move the goalposts” and fixate on social comparisons that make us miserable.
In other words, we look to Comfort Creep in order to find happiness and contentment.
What I’ve noticed is how few people realize that this is a never-ending cycle of misery. As the above quote says, we move the goalposts. It’s only once we realize we’re doing this that we can stop equating insane levels of comfort with happiness and contentment. It’s only then we can kick Comfort Creep to the curb once and for all.
It turns out that discomfort is nothing like as bad for you as you might expect:
A 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescence found that young people who spent eight or nine days roughing it in the wilderness enjoyed numerous mental health benefits, including reduced stress and improvements in mindfulness, happiness, self-efficacy, and life satisfaction. - source
I’m not suggesting we all rough it for a few days to make us appreciate what we have. But I am suggesting that we could reset what we truly need in order to be comfortable.
Right this second, I am sat outside a coffee shop in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. There is no room inside and I’m typing away in a not-so-balmy 0C / 32F.
Here’s a picture to prove it:
You know what I really, truly want right now? Warm hands.
I know that once I head home (sooner rather than later), I will appreciate the warmth of my apartment so much more than if I had been able to sit inside this coffee shop.
It’s a small thing but by being mindful of it, I can supercharge my happiness this afternoon.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done precisely becaue of those moving goalposts. Once I’m warm again, I won’t think about it. As I continue to live my life on the road, I can say that I’ll never take a good bed, an oven and a warm apartment for granted ever again, but if I ever stop traveling, I probably will. I’ll get used to it all again.
The Comfort Creep will return.
If I’m not careful, I could descend into the depths of comfort. Soon I too could be the owner of a music-playing fridge and wonder how I ever lived without one.
There are ways to combat this. Some people swear by gratitude journaling, documenting what they’re grateful for every day. It’s often small things like a compliment or a good night’s sleep or what would be in my case today, a warm apartment.
I’ve tried gratitude journaling but it never worked for me. Unless you’re part of a select few who makes it a habit, it’s all too easy to stop doing it, leaving the door open for comfort creep to once again take over.
What is needed instead is a fundamental shift in what you think you need in life in order to be happy and comfortable. It’s about knowing in your heart of hearts that it’s not going to be found in a slightly bigger car or a slightly more complex bottle of wine or a slightly bigger home.
It’s about lowering your expectations. Once you do that, your happiness and contentment levels will go through the roof.
And once that happens, life gets very, very good.
It’s not easy, to lower one’s expectations. In places like North America, much of Europe and Australia, we’re conditioned to believe that bigger is better, that we deserve more and more.
All I can say to this is - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Look at Veruca Salt. She wants everything and expects it now and doesn’t have a single jot of gratitude - or happiness - in her.
Although Veruca is a bit of a ridiculous character, she is indicative of what an overblown consumerist society expects us to be. Demanding, high expectations, spoilt with the riches of an overworked credit card.
No one wants to be Veruca Salt. We want to be Charlie, the boy whose expectations were low and gratitude was high. He was the one having all the fun in that factory because he didn’t expect that much. Unlike Veruca, he wasn’t a victim of Comfort Creep.
Lowering expectations goes against everything we’re taught and yet it is one of the most effective ways to experience contentment, happiness, and gratitude. It’s an amazing way to combat Comfort Creep because we’re no longer looking to move those goalposts.
They can stay exactly where they are. And we can get on the business of living a good life with less - and be all the happier for it.
Reading for the weekend
I was lucky enough to be featured in No Sidebar this week with my essay “Is Minimalism Still Relevant in 2023” which was a riff on a story I wrote here a few weeks back.
This week’s Medium articles (paywall free)
How I Used Digital Minimalism to Minimize 20,559 Emails, 1,191 Subscriptions, and My Hours Online by up to 90%
42 Benefits of Simple Living and Minimalism That Make Living with Less Totally Worth It
THANKS FOR READING!
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🌿🌿🌿 THAT’S IT! Paid subscribers, I’ll see you Tuesday. The rest of you, let’s meet up again on Friday. In the meantime, if you feel like sharing Simple and Straightforward with friends or family, please do.
Hi, Charlie. I finally have a steady income and some earnings from other sources, that still come to just under $2K a month. I am happier than I have ever been! No "Comfort Creep" will be going on with me. I have cut my expenses to less than $500/month, so I have a lot of surplus funds to tackle that pesky VISA bill that ran out of control while I had a wildly fluctuating income. I'm going on a holiday and attending a convention this summer. Instead of staying in a hotel, I'll be in a 1-bedroom apartment in a condo building for five days, at about half the cost of the convention hotel. I'm going to get some essential groceries before I "check in" so I can always have 2 meals a day in my temporary home. The last two days I'll be visiting friends, so no real accommodation cost there. But I'll do my bit by cooking and washing the dishes. Including airfare, the whole cost of my week's holiday comes to about $1700. I expect to enjoy it thoroughly.
Not a word here I can disagree with . We, too, have put up with a lot of less than pleasant things. The insanely loud bar underneath our apartment in Istanbul. Kneeling on my knees to wash dishes in the bathtub for six weeks in Keszthely, Hungary, because the kitchen sink was broken. And just a couple of months ago freezing in the Netherlands because the Airbnb host wouldn't turn up the heat.
Yet, when I got a hot water bottle to keep warm with I was so grateful. No, I wouldn't choose to be cold enough again to need a hot water bottle, but being that cold was a reminder of how nice it is to be warm, which I take much less for granted now.
I'm not sure how one avoids comfort creep or to convince other people that corporations are constantly scamming them.