Periodically, ‘inspiring’ talks and articles call on us to leave our comfort zone. E&M’s Jurek Wötzel disagrees: indeed, he calls on us to revel in the activities and environments we feel most comfortable with.
You should find your comfort zone and stay in it.
I’m not kidding. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. But believe me, I’m 100% serious about this: the narrative that no good things happen in the comfort zone is tyrannical, neoliberal trash.
“Life Begins at the End of the Comfort Zone”, “Why Comfort Will Ruin Your Life” or “Life Happens Outside the Comfort Zone” are just some examples of TedTalks reproducing that dubious story. Alarming self-help articles provide you with reasons why the comfort zone is destroying your life, and here’s my personal favourite: one article claiming the comfort zone is “killing” you. Plus, I’m pretty sure, we’ve all attended seminars, uni lectures or motivational summer schools that literally said one thing: the only way to grow is to step outside of your comfort zone.
Is comfort boredom?
How the hell has the comfort zone gained this image? Isn’t comfort supposed to be something good? Isn’t it intuitive that comfort is a crucial prerequisite for contentment? Well sure, it’s not as easy as that. So let’s, first of all, define the term comfort zone to know what we’re talking about. In managerial psychology, the definition goes something like this
“The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.” – Alasdair White
Put differently, the term comfort zone simply means finding oneself in a low-stress condition due to familiarity of task or environment. So it’s at least understandable why you could think that this is literally ‘death’. In some way, the above definition naturally evokes the image of a lazy civil servant doing the same boring bureaucratic job for his whole life. Or the image of the much-criticised traditional monogamous relationship that starts in the 20s, leads to marriage & kids in the 30s and home purchase in the 40s. No risk, no fun.
The argument behind comfort-zone-hatred is usually the following: if you’re comfortable, you have no reason to try harder or do something new. Therefore, you don’t grow. Only stepping outside of the realm of the familiar will push you to act differently. And acting differently is the only way to add to your skill-set, to experience new levels of joy or to become more resilient.
Purely on a conceptual level, it’s already easy to see the weakness of this theory – any craftsman, athlete, musician would confirm that growth doesn’t only come with trying harder or doing something new.
It all started with a bunch of mice
On a scientific level, the comfort zone is a more than questionable idea. It goes back to what is called the “Yerkes-Dodson law”, a psychological finding from a 1908 study on mice. Yes you got that right – 1908. On mice. Anyway, the law postulates that the relationship between stress and performance looks somewhat like an inverted u-shape, meaning that there is an optimal stress level for optimal performance. Put differently, it might well be that your stress level is simply too low for you to perform optimally, and this is what has come to be called the ‘comfort zone’.
As though a 1908 study done on mice doesn’t already sound dodgy enough, there is one major problem with this so-called ‘law’. It doesn’t quite live up to the scientific standards of replicability. The findings, as with many psychological theories, simply aren’t consistent. For instance, a meta-analysis of 50 papers on anxiety/stress and performance published between 1975 and 2000 found that just 4% of all papers found support for the inverted u-shape hypothesis. 46% of the publications, on the other hand, found a negative linear relationship, suggesting that we would work optimally under a no-stress condition.
Sounds like the comfort zone isn’t that bad after all.
Finding your flow
In fact, it even provides plenty of benefits. For one, it allows you to achieve mastery at a skill. Achieving mastery at something requires that you do that thing over and over again, all the time. If you’re training for a marathon, new stimuli for your muscles are important, but what’s crucial, too, is getting comfortable with running. If you’re practicing for a gig, simple repetition is even more important. In order to be really, really good at something, you must be really, really comfortable doing it.
What’s more, the comfort zone also allows you to relax, recharge and heal. If you’ve experienced a stressful phase, your body and your mind are literally crying for peace. And this peace, you’ll only find in the comfort zone. Surprise: you won’t find it in a 12-hour-rave after a 50-hour workweek.
I should end with a little disclaimer. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying new things. I am casting doubt on the idea that we should be trying something radically new, all the time. New challenges are good every once in a while, they do add some excitement to life, they do add to your skill-set. But the emphasis here is on “every once in while”. Humans aren’t built to be in a constant state of arousal. We’re built to be in a state of arousal from time to time, in adequate doses.
So, rather than pushing yourself out of it, you really should find your comfort zone. It’s a great place. And leave it every now and then, to go on a little journey. Think of it as your hometown: you’re there most of the time, but every once in a while, you take a plane, fly to faraway lands, and have a little adventure for yourself.
Cover Photo: Always in their comfort zone – cats (Александар Цветановић, Pexels)
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