Is Happiness the Same as Comfort?



Recently in my blog on ‘Reasonable Criterion for Success’ I pointed out a problem in which avoiding the pain of failure takes precedence and turns out to inhibit personal success. People go big early and focus way too intently on the immediate outcome, resulting in feelings of failure which lead them to give up on their aspirations prematurely.  People who have come up against failure and the pain that comes with it often react by overcompensating with a ‘play it safe attitude.’ The problem on the other end of the spectrum is that people avoid risk altogether. Last week I focused on how social conditioning contributes to the human tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain, specifically the pressure to fit in. This week I want to focus on the neuroscience behind this.

In addition to social conditioning factors, whenever you experience pain or a negative emotion there is a part of your brain that becomes activated that tells you “DON’T DO THIS AGAIN!” Our body and mind are hard wired to avoid situations that cause us pain. There is an actual part of the brain that becomes highly active when we experience the pain of failure or rejection can be observed, proving that such pain is real (see image). These brain systems help make sure that we learn from our mistakes: as a child these brain systems are triggered when we see a hot stove after we’ve been burned once, or may fire up when we experience something that reminds of of a traumatic experience, or signal when to get out of a bad relationship. It is a good thing that our brain does this. It is how we learn. If our brain did not work this way we would keep making the same mistakes over and over, repeatedly throwing ourselves into the same painful experiences we would be better off learning to avoid. The problem is that this same neurobiology can also cause us to flinch from challenge and play it safe, as challenges and growing experiences can be painful. This natural neurological mechanism can also prevent us from personal growth if we give into it and allow avoidance to prevail. Our brain can overgeneralize these lessons and lead us to avoid situations we want to be in and want to learn to handle. If you completely withdraw after a failure and pull back from the endeavor (out of shame, hurt, or avoidance of anxiety) you are avoiding these painful emotions, but you are also sacrificing the entire learning process.  

I am not promoting masochism, but the reality of life is that there are good times in life, but also not so good times. By consciously avoiding the tough times you are running from reality. We all do it on some level, but the truth is that setting up your life to avoid pain will cause neurosis. It is important to have a strong nervous system to be graceful during tough times. This means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone sometimes, challenging yourself to persevere beyond the social and internal pressures, as well as purposely exposing yourself to situations that evoke these pressures to recondition yourself to be more comfortable in them and learn the lessons you need to learn to grow and progress. This is the stuff of happiness, not  taking the easy route.  

To attain a state of happiness you need to strive to experience new horizons, feel the rush that comes with taking a risk every once in a while, and push yourself through the initial experiences of discomfort and pressure. This is what will lead you to grow and experience new things in life and get to know different aspects of yourself that have been dormant or you never even knew you had. Remember, the things in life people regret most are the things that they did not do.

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