Comfort, Discomfort and Inebriation


In happy situations, the magic of worldly

fulfillment beguiles us into seeing

the world as a harmony of being.

- Karl Jaspers

twenty-something sits slouched at the desk with the blue hue from the screen making his face look even more drawn than it would in natural light. His body is starting to break through his concentration with its requests for food, water and bathroom. When he finally submits and turns off the computer, his reflection in the black mirror before him sends him into the now familiar downward spiral of self-loathing. Right then he experiences a moment of forced confrontation with the reality that he is trying every day to avoid. Another day lost to noncumulative screen time. Another day adding to his mother’s lament.

It’s midnight and a fifty-something starts awake, thrown into wakefulness by a body done with detoxifying the evening’s three glasses of wine and wanting some sustenance. Maybe it was four, she thinks, and they were heavy pours. A familiar set of body aches alerts her to the fact that she is in for a few hours of serious unease before drowsiness returns. Plus she can expect another tomorrow lost to lack of sleep and dehydration. She never calls it a hangover, just not enough sleep. She remembers thinking when she walked in the door that evening how nice it would be to have a glass of wine to take the edge off her fraught day.

A sixty-something finishes the novel, closes the book with a sigh and sits quietly for a moment. The familiar but unwelcome silence surrounds her as she lifts the next library book off the stack by her chair and opens it to the first page. Despite the clear messages of stiffening distress that her body is sending her, she doesn’t get up to move around. She’s aware briefly of her internal to-do list which isn’t that long but neither is it inspiring. She adjusts her glasses, pulls the throw tighter around her hips and starts to read. This day doesn’t need her and she doesn’t need it.

If you identified with any aspects of the above scenarios and felt a dreadful wash of shame as you read them, please take a deep breath and read on. This article will, I promise, help you eliminate the shame you have for any comfort-seeking behaviors that have grown too extensive for your sense of wellbeing. Further, it will replace the feelings of helplessness you may have around some of your sloppy behaviors with a clear sense of how to skillfully administer the activities in your life that bring you ease.

What can we say about these three people? Most of us would jump to the recriminating belief that they are guilty of wasting precious time. There is no cultural excuse for such profligate behavior. The temperance types would have us label them all as unfortunate folks with addictive personalities who need to be rescued from their weaknesses. But those labels won’t wash. The research doesn’t support the concept of “addictive personalities.” Most social scientists agree that heavy use of any inebriant is due to multiple biopsychosocial reasons.

I think the same is true for over-indulgence in all of the comforts of life.

More specifically, from my feminist/existential position, I have come to see all addictive behaviors as the mishandling of appropriate comfort seeking. The risk of bungling comfort-seeking behaviors is heightened at the intersection between discomfort and lack of accessible future memory. That last sentence probably needs some explanation.

Stripped to the bones, existentialism posits that the job of every human who has ever been is this – to take our allotment of time, the circumstances of our birth and the unique essence within us and work to move as steadily and wisely as possible toward a future that would make our life’s journey worth taking again. To achieve this ontological goal, we must create a future memory with a deliberately detailed picture of how life could look for us when we have put certain things in place for ourselves. This is beyond daydreaming. This is will to power in action. It is our commitment to taking our talents and our traits as far as we can in order to build a life just for us that is scary sweet.

That can be quite difficult to do if you have been told not to do so, not taught how to do so, punished for doing so or all three. As you’ve probably gathered by now, the major premise of this website is this: It is not your fault that you were not taught how to design a life or if you were shamed for the things you did try to do to create meaning for yourself. And the website is committed to the idea that it is always possible to gather a complete existential toolkit for ourselves to use in designing our life. It is never too late to start running our essence up a flagpole.

Bottom line, we have to design a robust life for ourselves because if we don’t have the hunger for the next fulfilling thing in life, we get the hunger to escape life.

It’s very uncomfortable being a human being. Our mammal instincts are constantly at war with our neocortical conclusions, we are surrounded by the chaos of others trying to figure out life with more or less success but, most importantly, no one teaches us how to be a human being. We spend uncountable moments struggling with our internal battles, comparing our insides to the outsides of successful others and working to sidestep mean people. And, on top of all that, we each wrangle with the terrifying philosophical question of how to relate to the universe. It’s no wonder we all seek comfort to a sometimes excessive level.

This article is written to help you spot any intersections of discomfort and lack of future memory within you that can drive episodes of heavy comfort seeking. And to help you avoid shaming yourself when you are caught in such a trap.

So, again, what can we say about these three people? In truth, we can say that these people are desperate to escape their relentless discontentment with a life they see as stagnated. They believe they have nothing to lose because they are losers. Perhaps they see themselves as talented but lazy. They may believe they are doomed with bad luck. Or they believe they have nothing to offer. These perspectives are never true. No one has nothing to offer or nowhere to go. No one has no future memory. But a gaslighting upbringing can convince the smartest among us that we are nobody going nowhere.

It’s always the upbringing

Comfort seeking is one of the most confusing and difficult aspects of the adulting process. We are constantly befuddled by our seemingly inexplicable behaviors. Why can’t we allow ourselves to partake of just enough of whatever is comforting to us to reap the benefits and not the side effects? How can we explain episodes of binge eating, drinking, streaming, gambling, shopping and on and on? Why do we over indulge when it’s clearly not good for us? When the costs for doing so are so high? Why aren’t we outgrowing some of our sloppy habits?

A better question might be “Did anyone ever explain to me why all humans need to seek comfort or teach me how to do that well?”

The problem starts with this: We aren’t told how uncomfortable designing a life can be. No one warns us that it will be a struggle to balance ambition and diligence with relaxation and peace of mind. In fact, rarely are we the beneficiaries of social support for seeking regular pleasant breaks in a stressful day. And, thus obviously, no one teaches us how to achieve this balance. Further, we often stigmatize the behaviors that bring us comfort because they are the very behaviors that often slip us into addictions.

When a good thing is called a bad thing and we are told not to do it because only bad people do it and then we do do it, we have to conclude that we are bad. Sound familiar?

We didn’t start the fire. Humans have always needed to be allowed pleasure. Beer, Super Bowl tickets, coffee, naps, late nights, late mornings, Ambien, gossip, exotic plants, organizing, cracking your knuckles, hot tubs, throwing a party, snowboarding, rare books, sex, YouTube, improv, complaining, fabric, campfires, NASCAR, sarcasm, cats, coq au vin, picking stocks, gifts, GIFs, applause, hammocks, tech gadgets, solitary walks, family reunions, the color pink, throw pillows, meditation, cross word puzzles and scented candles.

Nothing on that list is bad. All can bring you comfort, but all can bring you trouble. This is partly because the specific and idiosyncratic things that bring us each comfort are the very things that we are at most risk for overindulging in because they are soothing to our particular makeup. You won’t have to think very hard to come up with your own list of comforts and you will easily recognize how many items on that list are risky for you because you crave their specific comfort so much. Using me as an example, I can keep ice cream in the house and have it once in a blue moon, but cookies call to me in an unabating siren song.

But wait, I hear you mutter. How can all comforts become dangerous? Let me answer by using kindness as an example. It is very uplifting to be kind to others. That uplift is comforting to us, reminding us that we are good people. But is it always good to be kind? Can’t it sometimes be experienced as infantilizing or pre-emptively foreclosing on someone’s potential personal success? Or virtue signaling? Or buying friendship? Or forcing reciprocity? Toxic generosity is a real thing. You can read more about it in the article on kindness. Suffice it to say here, if we enact kindness without boundaries, resentments will surely follow.

When something becomes a central organizing principle of your life without regard to a balancing orientation, perspective will be lost. Therefore, all forms of comfort seeking are dangerous. But they are also enticing and appropriate and difficult to moderate. We need to understand why something is comforting. We need to understand how to pamper ourselves without losing ourselves in the process. We need to not shame ourselves for not yet having learned all this.

Our early childhood training underserves us in these four ways: 1) we aren’t shown the existential struggles that all humans face, therefore, we aren’t prepared for life to be endlessly difficult and thus uncomfortable to some degree; 2) we aren’t taught how to tolerate discomfort; 3) we aren’t taught how to manage comfort seeking; and 4) we don’t know how to make an ontologically comfortable life for ourselves.

1) Existential training

Very few parents overtly lie to their children about the existential truths that we all face, but even fewer parents consciously address this particular reality. We may talk around some metaphysical issues (You have to be responsible for feeding the dog.) and model others (Dad shows his resilience when he loses his job.), but no child alive has gotten a thorough education in the ontological truths underlying every single human life. If you’d like a checklist to review your own upbringing, here it is:

• Every one of us must take seriously the job of figuring out who we are as utterly unique individuals by regularly digesting our past actions and doing so without shame. When you can use hindsight to carefully explore who you have been up until now, you can start to map out the terrain defined by your gifts and traits.

• We become adults when we can hold ourselves accountable for watching how we are using our present moments to implement a coherent life.

• Our ideas for the future need to seduce us forward with delightful and detailed scenarios generated by our abilities, our interests and our personalities.

• It takes courage to live authentically with the reality that Fate will visit upon us input that is unpredictable, bewildering and potentially fatal.

• We must be effortful in maintaining a sound interpersonal support system for ourselves in order to establish a constant supply of psychological energy with which to pursue our life goals.

Can you see how that list adds up to the fact that life is always going to be a challenge? Doesn’t it make sense to be trained to expect, then, that a demanding life will cause some ongoing discomfort? And, finally, wouldn’t it be nice to learn how to administer your life around the shame-free idea that there are things we can and should do to mitigate the discomfort? Let’s hear it for comfort seeking! Cookies!!

2) Tolerating discomfort

Oh man oh man. To my way of thinking there is nothing asked of a human being that is harder than tolerating discomfort in our children. We ache when they ache. We tremble when they tremble. But if we want to be effective as parents we need to tolerate these harrowing feelings.

As adults, our vulnerability to being seduced by ease is a function of how willing and able our parents were to face discomfort. In other words, wimpy parents create vulnerable kids. There are two important ways that parents need to be able to feel and tolerate discomfort: relative to their own behaviors and relative to the behaviors of their children. If they are unable to accomplish this most of the time, their children receive the following messages writ large onto their emerging understanding of how the world is.


Heavy Drinking

- Herbert Fingarette

Toxic Work

- Barbara Bailey Heinhold

Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

- Nel Noddings

This Is Your Brain on Music

- Daniel J. Levitin

7 Tools to Beat Addiction

- Stanton Peele


First, adults cannot be trusted. If the grownups around us are too rattled by our distress to do their job as parents, our ability to depend on them for much of anything will be crippled. And if they cannot tolerate discomfort in their own lives, we witness their lack of courage as they back away from challenges or avoid taking risks. We need to believe our parents can tough out tough situations.

Second, we are led to assume that we cannot be expected to tolerate discomfort. We are too fragile or too special to have to face difficulties, setbacks, disappointments or losses. We are taught that the world is supposed to rescue us, protect us and not make us uncomfortable. Yikes. That’s a set up!

Third and most egregious, we get the message that we are not impressive as individuals and therefore cannot trust ourselves. Either we cannot be expected to overcome an obstacle and succeed, or we cannot be trusted to handle an upset. When we fail to see the strength within our children to handle the burden of discomfort, they will fail to see it in themselves. Additionally, being sheltered from risk-taking or facing losses renders a child untested. Sending someone into adulthood untested is a crime.

I wonder how many parents would be flabbergasted to learn that it is criminal to not let a daughter or son experience distress. This common element of poor parenting is extra distressing to me because the stakes are so very, very, very low during the 10,000 teachable moments of a childhood. No kid is going to be devastated by not winning a game of Monopoly, being limited to two pieces of Easter candy or facing a losing season of little-squirt soccer. To not get a trophy is to get, instead, a valuable practice session in how to face Fate. This is how we learn that most rough patches turn out to be survivable. Later in life when the stakes go up, that lucky child can trust themselves to proceed thoughtfully because they have experienced distress in many small, inoculating doses.

Adults can’t run or hide from discomfort if they want to learn to be better parents, prove their dedication to their children and model discomfort tolerance.

What, though, are the skills underlying the ability to tolerate discomfort? As is the case with so many life skills, tolerating discomfort requires a thought protocol that can keep your mind headed in the direction of coping well with adversity while your lungs continue to breathe in and breathe out. Left on their own, most brains will want to escape distress by either creating a different reality or demanding comfort seeking. We all can conjure up examples of the latter escape strategy – donuts, Netflix, beer. Examples of the former might be pretending you don’t need to be disappointed in yourself for not going for a walk because it was raining; telling yourself it’s really okay to leave this “boring” party without trying to talk to a few people first; or avoiding asking a neighbor to pick up after their dog because you anticipate return hostility.

Understandable as those escape strategies might be, our brains need to be trained to maintain the course toward a successful exit from discomfort using a combination of support and challenge.

The necessary thought protocol needs to go something like this:

Of course you’re distressed because

• You’re working hard being your unique self.

• You’ve been taking your job very seriously.

• You made an understandable mistake.

• You were just visited by Fate in a disappointing way.

• Your best friend moved away.

And what needs to happen now?

What do the data suggest caused this unhappiness? Can the situation be fixed? Or avoided next time? Or, even if it is causing distress, is it an important step toward something worthwhile? Where can you get help if you need it? You’ve handled disappointment before, you can handle it now. Keep breathing. Stay the course. Remember that there are good things ahead. See? Look up.

In sum, what was missing from your training was a profound understanding of and respect for discomfort. Trouble can be worth tolerating because it is both unavoidable and valuable. Not all risks pay off in victory, but all risks pay off in data and data are always rich in clues about how to do better. And Fate VERY rarely deposits a comfortable life on us when we haven’t ventured very far from the shore.

3) Making a comfortable life

Humans are the most comfortable when they are moving. This is true both literally and figuratively.

There is no shortage of research on the connection between exercise and a positive state of mind. Our mammal bodies are made for action, so we are the most biochemically comfortable when we are able to physically participate in the activity of living.

Our existential bodies are most contented when we are making good progress toward the next thing we want – toward an alluring future memory. This progress can be in one or several of the categories of wants we all have: professional, relational, recreational, financial, spiritual, political and so on. You hopefully recognize that stance as will to power.

We reliably access our will to power through self-construction. So, here goes a nutshell of the entire self-construction website:

Life is difficult because we are both mammals and human beings meaning we have to take care of an organic body and all its demands (the bottom rungs on Maslow’s ladder of human needs) as well as guide the inorganic essence housed at the top of that body (the top rungs). We shepherd our essence along over the course of a lifetime when we fix the damage done to our sense of self during our childhood; learn how to manage our day-to-day lives in a responsible and mature way; bravely cultivate future memories for all the important aspects of our lives; tolerate the constant interference of Fate; and remember to power all those endeavors through a profound connection with people, places and things in our world.

Now, building off of that paragraph, here’s the most complicated understanding of comfort: The truth is that we humans are at our most comfortable when we have as many through lines of essence-building as possible all working for us AND we can trust ourselves to provide for oases of comfort designed not by ambition but with peace of mind in mind. In other words, the difficulty of creating an impressive life is satisfying like nothing else, but, because it is relentlessly difficult, we cannot be expected to maintain an unbroken diligence.

Rest stop 24 miles ahead. We create a reliably and reasonably comfortable life when our pursuit of excellence is interlarded with behaviors that relax and soothe us. Comfort is a little lily pad of respite from a sense of treading water. Therefore you will need an array of tried and proven sources of comfort placed strategically into your future.

As I described in the article debunking the seven deadly sins, comfort needs to be custom designed, intentionally scheduled and frequent enough to break the neurological buildup of malaise. Please hop over there now and read the section on gluttony.

4) Managing comfort seeking

We are now at the heart of the matter when it comes to being an existentially savvy and kind owner of a human brain. We have to figure out how to manage our comfort seeking so that it doesn’t slide into dependence on a behavior meant only to be a respite from our essence-building projects.

You may have noticed that when I listed the ways our childhoods under-train us for dealing with the issues of comfort seeking I had them in a different order. That’s because I needed to introduce them to you initially in the order that would most easily resonate with you: we aren’t shown the existential struggles that all humans face, therefore, we aren’t prepared for life to be endlessly difficult and uncomfortable; we aren’t taught how to tolerate discomfort; we aren’t taught how to manage comfort seeking; and we don’t know how to make an ontologically comfortable life for ourselves. But the actual order of correcting this naïveté is to understand the importance of having well-thought-through future memories; learn to tolerate discomfort; learn how to follow your future memories into a comfortable life and then learn how to manage comfort. Any other order of instruction can be seen as inherently shaming. Do you see?

The management of comfort seeking requires us to understand six truths underlying comfort administration. While there will be nothing new to you in the bulleted paragraphs below, you may find yourself having a difficult time reading them. They are the crux of adulthood and they evoke shame in all of us to the extent we know all this on some level but can’t seem to reliably utilize it. Before you read on, please, once again, bear in mind that you were neither warned about nor trained in how to handle the difficulties of being a human being, including how to handle our need for comfort. I want you to avoid shutting down due to shame, so please repeat to yourself “It’s not my fault” before and after you read each paragraph. I’m serious.

You need to start with a life that is as satisfying as possible. This process, as described in Section 3 above, is what Jaspers was referring to in the epigraph when he speaks of “the magic of worldly fulfillment.” It is incumbent on us to create a daily life gratifying enough that we happily return to it after a short break. But while an intermittent retreat to a place of intoxication must be restful enough to allow us to rejoin the trek to find our existential route to power, if the reassurance of the activity that fills that need for escape is too much greater than any reassurance we can feel in our actual lives, it can be understandably tempting to trade our real lives in for a life in a flask.

You need to have enough of it. Discomfort is cumulative. The biochemistry of discomfort is designed to make you miserable enough to move off of the merry-go-round that is causing you distress – to crawl under a bush as it were, heal and rethink things. When we hurt, our nervous system sensitizes to pain and this is true for both physical and emotional pain. We start to experience all negative feelings sooner and more intensely. If this continues too long, we can lose access to memories of a life that is comfortable – of a day-to-day existence that doesn’t demand near constant attention to comfort seeking. Because discomfort accumulates if untreated, we need to routinely interrupt this biochemical slide into inactivity with episodes of limbic comfort that can reset our brain back to neutral.

You can’t live there. There is a lid on comfort because the brain reaches a saturation point when it is being indulged. This is a good thing, otherwise our ancestors would have been so transfixed by the beauty of the first waterfall they came to that they would have failed to reproduce. The lid can be one of several things. Some restful things seem to produce a biochemical depletion of awe. Activities like petting a cat, contemplating a painting or smelling a bouquet of freesias will eventually lose their effect. It isn’t that you can’t revisit these awesome activities, it’s that your brain will acclimate to them and urge you to move on after a limited time. Other indulgences simply get boring after awhile. Because restful activities don’t pull for our core gifts and traits, they only occupy a small portion of our brains. The remainder of the brain gets restless and starts to demand attention. In other words, relaxation can never truly compete with the joy of mastery pursuit. Another lid is danger. Too long in a hot tub, too many martinis or extended time at the blackjack table will turn horribly into discomfort. All that is to say that there is a price to pay for overindulgence. The trick is to learn how much of a good thing you can enjoy before the penalties kick in. The biochemistry of pleasure is so sensitive it requires a light touch and chance to reset regularly, which brings us to the next point.

You need to remember why you can’t live there. As obvious as that may sound, we can actually and easily forget that overindulgence doesn’t work. You may try to deny vulnerability to this piece of the comfort management solution, but if you dig down, I’ll bet you’ll find some version of wishful thinking within. Because life is complex and because callow parents fail to train us in the management of comfort, humans have an unsurprising susceptibility to ease. We can start to believe that some sources of ease have the capacity to provide us with plausible alternatives to the absurdly difficult truths of life. It can be extraordinarily easy to deny the fact that we can’t live there. We have to wade into the battle of the mind to remind ourselves that “this does not work.” It will never be so that a life spent lying on the beach will be satisfying. A binge cannot stabilize into a wonderful lifestyle. It cannot happen that you are the one human on the planet who has discovered a comfort that will allow you to live there. Magical thinking occurs when you lose your connection with the data, and the data will always show that there is a price to pay for stepping off of your life. I will say that reminding yourself that “this does not work” is much harder and takes many more repetitions than one would think. When you find yourself resisting this truth, please tell yourself that you’re not stupid – siren songs are beguiling to everyone and they are a constant. Just keep at it and these words will sink in: Excessive comfort seeking doesn’t work. It never will.

You need to keep iHALT in mind. As discussed elsewhere on self-construct, we can most easily access our mature behaviors if we can avoid being too intoxicated, hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Each item on that list represents a feeling state that can cause our two amygdalae to throb in an effort to get our attention. These parts of the brain are not the parts you want running your life. They are there to provide data, not guidance. BTW, you can see why intoxicants are harder to regulate than, say, potato chips. Their dampening effect on our inhibitions turns our amygdalae loose – meaning they will start to make the decisions your neocortex is supposed to make.

You need to be vigilant about boredom. If you’re like me, you often run out of “good” late in the afternoon. I truly struggle between 3-5 p.m. on days when I’m tired, my willpower is all used up and I’m bored. From an existential standpoint, boredom means you have no accessible future memory – there is no activity right now pulling you toward it. From a feminist standpoint, boredom means you are disconnected from your world – there is nothing right now that you want to tend to. Now, I’m a big fan of occasional boredom that can allow our minds to wander in interesting and fruitful ways. But chronic, low-energy boredom is dangerous. I find that it helps to use some of my morning verve to bring more energy to my day and to put interesting things in place for myself in the afternoon. Comforting behaviors used as a release from boredom tend to be fairly unsatisfying because we know somewhere deep inside that we are abdicating rather than resting.

The goal of comfort management is to tenderly monitor your heart to notice when you are starting to bend under the acquisition burdens of a life carefully accoutered and then quickly offer a respite that is custom-made and ready to hand. And the self-talk that accompanies the little vacation needs be both comforting (certainly you need a break) and strict enough to put guardrails around the relaxing behavior to keep it from becoming unruly. That’s the yes/and combination of sound parental guidance. Yes, it’s time for you to take a respite. And, set a mechanism to remind you to clock when enough is enough.

First things first

Two pitfalls await you as you work to moderate comfort – the petulance/piety twins and symptom elimination.

The dangers of both petulance and piety cannot be overstated when it comes to trying to balance comfort seeking. While the piety of abstinence may be an appropriate choice for some people for some temptations at some points in time, most of us need to learn how to manage our cravings without giving our piety free rein. But we also have to watch out for petulance. Petulance doesn’t handle it well when it is trapped in obedience to piety. For most of us, when piety rules too long, our minds release the dogs of indulgence. I can pretty much guarantee that you will not be successful in learning how to balance comfort seeking if you cannot integrate your petulance and your piety into your decision-making apparatus. There is a long article on that process here that explains how, surprisingly, petulance isn’t necessarily a bad thing and piety isn’t all good. Humans need to develop a thoughtful relationship with these two if they are to effectively administer their comforts.

Relative to symptoms, I hope you can see why I’ve taken the position I’ve taken on this website, namely, that symptoms are data that tell us how our birth curses are still hampering our naturally occurring resilience and still keeping us from moving more-or-less smoothly through our lives. Comfort seeking to excess is just such a symptom and, unless life threatening, should be left in place until the extreme need for ease has been resolved. In other words, excessive comfort seeking tells you that your life is excessively uncomfortable. The solution is to work to minimize the discomfort before you start tinkering with your overindulgences. Again, there is an article that builds that argument here and may also surprise you in its description of the value of symptoms.

Please give the articles on petulance and symptom management a read or a reread.


We need to understand why a comfort is comforting. Turns out there are two reasons. There’s the primary reward of an activity and then there is the secondary reward, which is the release from the discomfort of craving the comfort. Cravings occur when, for example, your yearning to hit the surf is left unattended in your mind where it will increase its yammering until that’s all you can think about.

Note: When I’m speaking of craving in this article I’m addressing the psychological hunger for the comfort rather than the biochemical cravings that are associated with physical withdrawal from addictive substances.

A primary comfort, as I’ve described above, provides us with enjoyments that are extremely idiosyncratic. Chacun à son goût. Some people don’t like chocolate! Some people crave the thrill of free soloing! Again, different strokes. But no matter what the source, all forms of comfort have to provide the same thing – relief from the stress of our Sisyphean lives.

Common aspects of primary comfort are addressed in the section below. This section will discuss the secondary comfort – our jonesing.

Secondary comfort occurs when the voice in our heads hankering for an activity shuts up. This is called negative reinforcement – the reward we get with release from a negative experience. Your car dinging at you to put on your seatbelt is an example of that. You are rewarded for strapping in by the cessation of the annoying dinging.

Craving can be described as a discontent with the status quo – we desperately want something that we don’t have right now. Discontent, like discomfort, tends to aggregate in our minds, growing to unmanageable proportions. Here’s how that works.

Your brain has a network of neurons called the reticular activating system that directs all the sensory input into your brain (except for your sense of smell). Because there is simply too much information to attend to at any point in time, the RAS has what could be called algorithms that serve to filter and prioritize the incoming data. One of these algorithms consists of your intentions. One of these intentions can be a craving. So. If we allow our mental urges for something – let’s use a snack as an example – to take root in our thinking, the RAS starts to take that seriously. It will cooperate with your craving to the extent it will start to filter out more and more information coming in from your world, heightening your mental focus instead on the fresh bag of Cheetos in your cupboard.

While this attention bias may feel out of your control, in order to manage comfort you need to remember that you can address these urges using very powerful existential mental muscles. When the brain starts to perseverate on a craving, your willpower can initiate behaviors that will give you a level of control over the situation. Cravings, like all mental activities, have short duration spikes. If you move quickly when facing a cacoethes (a great word for the irresistible urge to do something naughty), you can interrupt the intention that the RAS is trying to implement. With practice, you can train your willpower to direct the RAS away from that nattering of discomfort and toward effective distractions. The Internet is replete with strategies to redirect the brain. Some are preventative (get plenty of sleep, eat a healthy diet, manage stress and so on) and some are on-the-spot tactics to stop the up-regulating of the amygdalae (drink some water, go for a walk, stretch, chew gum, text a friend, watch a video and so on.) The point is to break the building waves of craving and allow your mind to strengthen its focus on a preferable behavior at hand. And an elegant little cherry on the sundae of sound impulse management would be to give yourself extremely positive feedback as you turn back to the task in front of you. Your brain cannot get enough of that stipulation.

All of these strategies are hard to do if we don’t trust ourselves. We must believe that we will be allowed to earn the reward of comfort in the near future. Therefore, the best way to minimize cravings is to consciously maintain all those future memories, schedule reliable and wonderful comforts and never, ever shame yourself for struggling when you are uncomfortable.

Primary comforts

There are endless sources of comfort – some are mostly benign, some are for the most part self-limiting and others are disinhibiting. The benign and self-limiting comforts don’t create much of a problem. Microwavable warming pads are wonderfully cozy and likely beneficial. Benign. Having a nice, clean car is very enjoyable, but most of us don’t want to spend too much of our time vacuuming, washing and waxing. Self-limiting.

The dangerous comforts are those that cause us to lose ourselves. All comforts change the biochemistry of your brain but the most treacherous of them do so in a way that disconnects you from your route-finding ability to work your way back to reason. You can get lost in the false belief that the escape activity is giving you a life that is preferable to that which your reality is currently offering you. The more we understand intoxication myopia, the better able we are to put safety measures in place for ourselves that can allow us to find our way home.

Good management of comfort seeking would suggest, then, that we recognize our sources of comfort for both what they can offer and what danger they represent.

What follows are examples of how some sources of ease and energy work on our brains.

Video games: It’s my understanding that the hallmark of gaming is a hero role with constant “muscle building” activities that make you feel more and more potent. And there’s the added benefit of task magic as you “complete” challenges in order to level up. Because these games are inherently Groundhog Day, they allow the player to rework and rework their way to victory. Video games, then, are a great way to disconnect from the real world and enter into a space where you know what to expect and can master challenging situations with practice. If you spend an hour or three here taking a break from a world in which you have very few of those opportunities, you should be able to feel refreshed. The trick, obviously, is not beating yourself up for seeking the comfort of a video game within which you get to feel potent, in control, heroic and so on while also being firm enough with yourself to limit the time spent in an alternate reality. There can also be opportunities with some games to create an actual community of friends. While there are clearly dangers in situations where the identity of the players cannot be verified and there are many cruel folks out there ready and eager to bully, it can be great fun to cooperate with others to vanquish a common enemy.

Alcohol: We all tend to pretend that we get to be a better version of ourself with just a few sips of alcohol. If you’re self-conscious, you get to be more socially relaxed. If you’re tired, you get a burst of energy. If your mind is racing, it will quiet. If you want to be uninhibited, that is quite easily done. It’s not that these beliefs aren’t true, it’s that it’s hard to stop with those few sips. The trick with alcohol is that it is the initial rise in blood alcohol that is appealing. Like accelerating onto the freeway, the dynamic feelings at the onset of inebriation are heady. Unfortunately, that is a time-limited reality as you cannot continue to increase the level of alcohol in your blood without crossing the threshold into sloppy behavior and hangover territory. Wise consumers of this form of relaxation flatten the trajectory of alcohol concentration and know when to stop. This takes both practice and strengthening the memory of distress when it’s not done well.

Cannabis: The active chemical in pot shrinks your world into very narrow focus, allowing you to enjoy just a small corner of existence. This convergent-thinking enhancement makes everything seem manageable because life’s bothers have been biochemically minimized or taken out the picture entirely. When there are no current demands on you to be alert, aware and energized, marijuana can provide you with a cushion of chill that can refresh and ease you. It must be said here, however, that THC levels in cannabis has been steadily and sharply rising, meaning that many forms of pot contain dangerously high levels of it. In a culture that disdains a "less is more" attitude, it can be difficult for folks (especially young folks) to "settle" for substances with lower levels of the active ingredient. This treacherous intensifying of the active ingredient is true currently for coffee, beer and pot.

The doozy drugs: All the chemicals, natural and synthetic, that one tends to obtain illegally are potent ways to be someone else. The uppers (cocaine, amphetamines, meth, Adderall and so on) make you feel on top of the world, ready to step off and fly. The downers (benzodiazepines, heroin, Fentanyl, oxycodone and so on) could be called I-don’t-give-a-shit pills. They make everything seem like it’s just no big deal. My problem with these substances is that they are all so concentrated, chemically-speaking, that our brains just don’t know how to handle them well. If we could occasionally chew on a coca leaf for energy or enjoy the ritualized use of an opium tincture, maybe we could learn to reap the benefits of these chemicals without losing ourselves in the process.

Reading: Enjoying a great novel puts you into a world so believable within your mind that it can take you away from yourself. We can’t be blamed for wanting to spend time in an environment that tends to be rapidly unfolding, full of adventure, happily resolved and peopled with marvelous examples of wit and integrity. The explosion of book series now available makes it even more fun to lose yourself in a world because you can dip into it book after book with the same community of characters.

Binge-watching streaming shows: This activity creates the same escape that reading does but with moving pictures and dialogue. It requires less energy than does reading.

Caffeine: Sadly, our enjoyment of coffee can be described as that classic negative reinforcement mentioned above. Beyond the taste and the warmth, an espresso is neurologically satisfying only in that it eliminates a negative – the craving for caffeine. In other words, the brain of regular coffee drinkers is so habituated to caffeine that it cannot reach levels high enough to trigger the happy buzz caffeine can precipitate in a naïve brain. A cup of coffee to a heavy user just means that the brain can rest assured that it won’t be getting caffeine withdrawal symptoms. The only way to truly capture the glee of a caffeine rush would be to drink it no more often than every three days. It takes about 72 hours for the inducible enzymes that metabolize caffeine to fade away, at which point we would again be “vulnerable” to the jazzy effect of caffeine on our system. Instead, we get up every morning and enjoy our cup of Joe without enjoying it at its most sublime.

Nicotine: This chemical dissolves you into the world, leaving you with the sense you’re doing fine. As a divergent-thinking enhancer, it can open you up to wonderful flights of creativity and cooperation. It’s just that it appears to be difficult to get nicotine into your body without the carcinogenic effect.

Sex: A person addicted to sex is captured by the relief of acting in ways that result in the physical release of orgasm and the residual comfort of oxytocin. The type of sex that serves someone addicted to it, however, tends to be impersonal and predatory rather than intimate and mutual. So the addiction may be to the sense of vengeance and domination rather than the act of intercourse.

Exercise: Similar to alcohol, exercise can serve different purposes to different people. For some folks, exercise creates endorphin levels that focus the brain in ways that feel potent. For others, exercise is virtue signaling, with a side of happy brain chemicals. Exercise can also serve as an excuse to escape from any aspect of your life that is tedious, boring, task-heavy and so on. But in terms of primary gains, there is no getting around the truth that the human brain responds very, very well to movement. Exercise, therefore, creates a brain steeped in many healthy chemicals.

Food: The primary gain of eating is extremely complicated. It is way, way beyond the scope of this website to address the effect of eating on the human brain. Books and books have been written about this. For the purposes of this article, however, let me address just the psychological comfort of food. As with most human activities, if food is enjoyed as part of a ritualized, social event, the biochemistry of the activity is more profound, lasts longer and is less likely to lead to over-indulgence. So one way to optimize the bounty of the county is to eat with company. But good food also keeps us company when we are alone – providing a reliable calmness balm that can reset our level of stress. The trick is to harvest all three emotional benefits of food: the anticipation of the treat, the momentary enjoyment of the eating process and the satisfied feeling of having eaten something tasty. These mood states have to be noticed and valued because we are all more than capable of eating an entire meal without registering it.

Shopping: Beauty is satisfying to humans as are efficiency, acquisition and having an impressively decorated home. Unfortunately, hoarding and compulsive shopping can also feel gratifying. The amnesia caused by the primary gains inherent in acquiring can cause us to forget truths such as the fact that we already have seven sets of lovely bed sheets, that this purchase is going to run our credit card above what we can pay off this month or that the intense yearning we feel for this particular new toy will fade sooner than we think. Retail therapy can be comforting as long as spending controls stay in place in order to prevent money problems.

Procrastination: This unquestionably unavoidable human behavior is comforting in that it delays discomfort. As the article on the topic explains, procrastination becomes problematic only when it turns from a time-management tool to a preferred style of dealing with your responsibilities. The trick with procrastination is to monitor the level of very real satisfaction we get when we indulge in it (not to mention the delight we get when it pays off) and compare that with the increasing pressure of the backlog of accumulating tasks.

This section provides only a brief overview of various forms of biochemical comfort. I would encourage you to put some serious research into the comforts you choose in order to maximize their effectiveness and minimize their dangerousness.

Comfort as medicine

While many comforts can ease our minds in the face of our embarrassingly sloppy behaviors or Fate-driven struggles, comfort should rarely – if ever – be used as medicine for what ails your brain.

Comforts can soothe us and make us feel better if we are grappling with our reactions to our lives. They interrupt our stressors in order to allow our bodies to heal themselves. Allopathic medications work to correct the cause of the distress by working to correct the biochemistry of the body in order to eliminate or minimize the illness.

Because using the biochemistry of comfort does not address the cause of the distress, a person who is self-medicating usually ends up organizing around the chosen comfort. It becomes a substitute for solution, pulling a person further and further away from activities that could produce actual healing.

The best use of comforts with respect to mental distress is to use it to reward those behaviors that work to mitigate the source of the suffering. If you are struggling with a neurotic response to your life, use your peaceful activities to renew your commitment to resolving your issues. If you are struggling with mental illness, try to use your restful breaks to fortify your plans for gathering information and professional support to continue your battle to stay connected to positivity and to moving more smoothly through your life.

You have your particular problems. Believe that you can work to resolve them. Take breaks but don’t strive to self-medicate.

It might make more sense to think of comforts as vitamin supplements. If we can kindly consider the very real need humans have for comfort, we can do two things to better provide that for ourselves.

First, we can be alert to situations that create a heavy temptation life. Constantly saying “no” to comforting things can drain you of available willpower by 11 am. There is an entire article on understanding the dangers of temptations here.

The other thing to remember is that comfort-seeking hunger is extremely dangerous when it converts to starvation. Like physical pain, emotional discomfort will intensify if not interrupted. If you get too caught up in your productive life and are unable to let yourself ease off, you will start to go into relaxation debt. While possible to maintain in the short run, this is not a wise way to live. Burnout anyone?

You can see, then, that we have to schedule regular and reliable breaks of various durations for ourselves in order to build an internal system of trust. Some can be just little joy snacks such as a quick YouTube video or a stroll around the office to visit with coworkers. You will want to schedule more medium breaks like an afternoon off, a potluck dinner with neighbors, a new sweatshirt or season tickets. Finally, big future enjoyments can steady us with whispers of a big gob of fun coming to us in a few months. Plans to remodel your kitchen, a week in Yosemite or a family reunion beckon us forward in our lives with the promise of a rewarding experience.

It is more than okay to feel like those things that bring you ease are comfortable friends. You just don’t want them to be your best friends. Or your doctor.

Budgeting for comfort

The core feature of a comforting action is that it should return us to the tasks of life refreshed and energized. We will not enjoy our break nearly as much if the action sends us into debt. So because there is a price to pay for indulgence, we need to understand that comfort needs to be budgeted. Each comfort will have its own cost – in time, money, calories, energy, friendship equity and so on. This budgeting process is described in the seven deadly sins article under the heading Gluttony.

But what’s not covered there is the concept of earned enjoyment. Slightly distinct from having the necessary budget to cover an indulgence, when we have been living coherently we will be fairly up to date on the tasks on our intentional to-do list. In that state, the breaks we take and the comforts we give rein to will be both more enjoyable in the moment and more restorative as we rejoin our day. It’s the grownup version of “Eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert.”

I want you to grasp this concept of earned enjoyment on a visceral level, so please humor me with a thought experiment right here. Try to think about that moment when anticipation resolves into acquisition – the instant when the waiting pays off. Think about how great it feels on the first morning of a vacation you have been saving for for months; how pleasant it is when the waitperson puts your lovely lunch down in front of you with your close friend sitting across the table; how enjoyable it is to wake up and remember that it’s your day off from the gym; or how great that special cup of coffee smells as you bring it up to your lips. The more instances of this bliss you can remember, the stronger will be your affective memory of this fabulous feeling. This heavenly moment is brought to you by your self-discipline – by your ability to manage comfort seeking so that your oases, big and small, are well earned. The biochemistry of this moment is to be savored and will add considerably to your enjoyment of the comfort itself. I encourage you to get in the habit of pausing before a well-earned delight long enough to harvest this neurological reward – to remind yourself that you managed your cravings and you budgeted for this comfort. Cheers!

With practice we can all get better at keeping our comfort budgets balanced in the habitable zone between being too permissive or too stingy with ourselves, thereby avoiding the miserable place of unquenched needs and optimizing our opportunities to luxuriate in the warmth of comforts well deserved. We can also notice the gratification that washes our brains at that point in time when our well-deserved rewards are finally ours to collect.

Now, remember instances when you grabbed an unearned comfort. How did that feel? Not to sound too parental here, but try to remember the discomfort we experience when we sneak a treat. At the least, it reduces the degree of comfort. At most, it eliminates it entirely leaving us more spent that before we indulged. This is a very human behavior and fine to engage in from time to time. But it is also diagnostic. If it is increasing in frequency, we need to take a look at what is driving this self-sabotaging behavior.

Binge behavior

It could be said that there are three types of binge behavior: mindlessly gobbling up something easily accessible; taking advantage of a moment’s weakness to give yourself up briefly to behavior that you usually tightly control; and demoralized over-indulgence designed to render wise future behavior hopelessly inaccessible.

Each of these actions has the ability to collapse our will to power leaving us vulnerable to trying to run our lives on that tiny motor of willpower.

It would make sense to identify the type of binge you have just experienced in order to choose the appropriate psychological remedy to apply after the fact. Otherwise, learned helplessness will creep into your will system and exacerbate your already heightened vulnerability to subsequent benders.

But, please, take a moment first to check for self-shame. Bingeing isn’t stupid or weak. It’s information.

The first type of comfort run amok sounds like this: I can’t believe I just finished a whole bag of [insert your favorite snack food here.] This naïve and childish behavior can be fun and comforting if your indulgence budget is well endowed and if you understand what caused it. We who exist within American culture have been trained in the super-size mentality to such a degree our sense of portion control is badly skewed. This isn’t just around food. All consumables and activities come in many sizes and price points, which means we all have to resist the allure of the top of the line, biggest, baddest everything. There are two things to be done with respect to this dilemma. First, remember to acknowledge how extreme the consumption anchor points are that have been established by commerce rather than wisdom. Think about who is telling you that you need a certain sized house to be happy. Then protect yourself from exposure to temptations that are beyond your comfort budget. Don’t go on Zillow to check out all the million dollar homes in your county. Don’t bring home a huge, party-size bag of [insert that snack again.] Stop reading about all the fabulous golf resorts around the world. In other words, think about where you are vulnerable to temptation and try to avoid exposure to those conditions whenever possible. Since the hallmark of this first type is accessibility, try to get in the habit of making dangerous things less accessible.

The second type of hazardous behavior occurs in areas of our lives where our comfort budget remains very tight. For example, if we have only a little discretionary income to spend on furnishing our new apartment, it can be difficult to stop ourself once in the furniture store. A new couch may be within our monthly budget, but the credit card is just sitting in our wallet waiting to flex its muscles. How easy it can be to foreclose on the next few months’ budgets with the power of that instant credit. (I don’t know about you, but just the smell of a furniture store sends me into a fugue state!) In order to protect yourself from this second type of excessive comfort seeking, you need to hold a planning meeting with your petulance and piety. As mentioned above, these psychological twins have a very hard time co-existing without adult supervision. Please read the article on these complex human characteristics.

The final type of excessiveness is the most dangerous. There will be times in all of our lives when we feel so battle worn and unsuccessful that we are willing to give up. The resignation I’m talking about here disguises itself as a fun thing, but it can more accurately be described as “going out with a bang.” This is depression talking. It’s telling you to just let go. Don’t worry if your current behavior – gratifying though it may seem to be – is setting you up to fail. You’ve got nothing to lose because you’re going nowhere anyway. If you find yourself slipping down into this place with behaviors that are clearly sabotaging any potential future success, please know this: you have to ask for help. Existential depression means you have a damaged relationship with yourself that affects your ability to access your will to power. Most of us will usually need support from the outside to fix this on the inside. Please seek out a healing professional to help you.

Chronic pain

I have fervent respect and compassion for people who live with constant pain. It is an exhausting reality to face day after day absent the simple joy of being comfortable in your body. If this is your situation, please, please believe that you deserve a second helping of comfort. Try to access the support of a pain management team, try to train your friends and family to provide you with the specific things that do bring you a moment’s relief and try to spend what good moments you have collecting lovely distractions for yourself.

A friend of mine who spent his adult life as a quadriplegic marshaled some of his buddies to set up a saltwater aquarium for him in his apartment. It brought everyone such joy – Henry himself, all his friends who knew exactly what to do to make a positive contribution to this brave man’s life, and the guys at the fish store who were always looking for exotic new additions to his aquarium. Henry was also a world-class complainer. By that I mean, he knew just how to share his discomforts and aggravations without spending too much of his time in negativity. Somehow that man managed to perfectly navigate the line between piety and petulance when it came to grousing. Because of his willingness to share his distress, I knew just enough about how difficult his life was to keep me able to regularly refresh my empathy for his situation. That knowledge and empathy allowed me to proactively provide small comforting gestures and assists. When he died at age 65, hundreds of people attended his memorial and person after person related how well he managed his uncomfortable life. Henry Reed, I salute your memory.

So no matter what your level of chronic pain, I urge you to complain heartily, train people around you, spoil yourself when you can and know that wise folks around you are noticing how very impressive you are being every single day.

Happily ever after

Let’s revisit the pretend folks we used as examples in the introduction and see if we can’t give them a happy ending.

The young lad manages to bestir himself in the fall to go to school and has the good luck to attend a high school that has a robust vocational program. He randomly signs up for welding and makes two terrific discoveries: a couple of friends and the fact that he has a gift for making sculptures out of metal. Video games continue to delight him but more often than not in the evenings and on weekends.

Fate did its thing on our fifty-something and dropped a lovely gift on her in the form of a new neighbor. This delightful woman proved to be a powerful, positive influence and soon the two women were walking in the evenings and returning home to one glass of excellent Pinot.

Finally, the bookworm got to chatting with another woman while waiting for the elevator at the library who was also in danger of isolating through reading. They both committed right there and then to sign up to read to youngsters through the summer reading program. Their time spent living in novels became an adjunct rather than the essence of their lives.

The point of this Pollyanna-ing is to demonstrate that a life moving forward is a life less likely to get bogged down with excessive comfort-seeking because it is – in itself – more comfortable.


I share Nietzsche’s thinking that being alive can feel like “dancing in chains.” We relish the exhilarating pirouettes and leaps of our successes while also struggling to tolerate the weight and painful chafing of the shackles of reality. If we accept the dark side of this dichotomy we will be more likely to provide comforting breaks for ourselves as needed. But comfort seeking is a terribly complex part of being a human that requires lots of planning, integration of internal appetites and choosing to choose adulthood. It also requires a social support system that is itself practiced in the management of rest and relaxation. It’s hard to behave ourselves when our friends are indulgent.

Managing comfort seeking is easier to accomplish when our lives are an affirmation of our essential being, resulting in a high level of satisfying emotional content and fairly consistently calm biochemistry. In other words, the ultimate human comfort is mastery. Comfort seeking behaviors in a life of success will then be experienced as well-earned breaks and not as attempts to fill a void in our souls. With lives filled with pursuit of intriguing future memories, our challenge becomes remembering to create, schedule and monitor comforts so that the unavoidable discomforts of life don’t aggregate into the need for rebellion within our psyche.

We have to make up the story of our life and we do that with the way we spend each day. A part of that is how and where we find comfort. Daydreaming, laughter, ad hoc whims and full-out fun should pepper our days, delivering moments of contentment to our existentially savvy selves.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.