After studying and teaching the science and practice of well-being, leadership, and expert performance for twenty-five years, and in my work with executives, athletes, adventurers, educators, activists, parents, and students from all over the world, one thing has become crystal clear to me: the secret to a remarkable life lies in your relationship to discomfort.
I am not just referring to physical pain or emotional experiences such as anger, fear, anxiety, stress, disappointment, or heartbreak. There is an easy exercise to uncover the kind of subtle discomfort that can be influential in your life - especially when you are unaware of it. Without thinking about it, clasp your hands together with fingers intertwined. See which thumb is on top. This is how you always do it - it is comfortable. Now unclasp your hands, shift them relative to each other, and reclasp them so that the other thumb is on top. If you pay attention, you may notice a slightly unsettled feeling - a mild sense of discomfort.
This simple exercise offers powerful insight into your brain. There is a part of your brain that is activated when it determines that there is a current problem or a potential obstacle, or when you do something different than you have in the past. This area of the brain then sends signals in two directions. One signal travels toward your gut to create sensations of discomfort, and another signal goes to a part of the brain that prompts a habitual behavior. If you engage in the behavior, then another part of the brain gives you a tiny reward, which you experience as relief from discomfort. In fact, the original meaning of the word comfort was "feeling of relief."
So this network in your brain connects the feelings of discomfort with an action that leads to comfort. Squirrels have the same system - stimulus, discomfort, action, comfort. What makes you different from a squirrel (besides longer legs, a lack of body fur, and slightly less beady eyes), is that this is not the only brain system you have for choosing behavior. We will get to that in a minute.
Discomfort is a natural and temporary experience. Discomfort is just information about how your nervous system is responding to circumstances. It may be incredibly useful information for navigating your environment and it may be misleading information based on false associations from the past. While discomfort itself is nothing more than a sensation created by your nervous system, mindless and reflexive efforts to seek relief from discomfort can cause a lot of drama. In fact, seeking relief from discomfort can completely derail us from what is most important. Procrastination, perfectionism, compulsion, eating, drinking, spending, lying, cheating, stealing, gambling, hoarding, yelling, hitting, hiding...the list goes on. While no one has ever died from discomfort, many people have died trying to get rid of it. In daily life, relentless pursuit of comfort and avoidance of discomfort require a tremendous amount of energy that could otherwise go into meaningful activities.
From a young age we are taught that the people and the circumstances around us are responsible for our feelings and that we are responsible for the feelings of others. The simple truth is that your feelings are created by your nervous system and other peoples' feelings are created by their nervous systems. To illustrate this point, let's imagine you are sitting on an airplane and a toddler is screaming. The mother is feeling frustration and embarrassment. Another parent sitting three rows back is feeling relief that it is not his child who is making the noise. A third person is feeling annoyance at the noise and another passenger is feeling empathy and compassion for the mother. Which of these feelings is the screaming child responsible for? The more you accept responsibility for how you relate to your own feelings and stop trying to control the feelings of others, the less complicated life becomes.
The good news is that human brains are equipped with more than just the squirrel system. You have architecture in your brain designed for awareness, acceptance, and purpose. You can notice and accept the feelings of discomfort, you can weigh values and priorities such as contribution, learning, growth, and connection, and you can take action based on what is most important to you.
Doing something even when you don't feel like it is a uniquely human trait. In fact, this may be the single most impressive thing about our species. I like to use the acronym WYFLION - Whether You Feel Like It or Not - to remind myself that I am capable of doing things in the presence of discomfort. Behind every significant accomplishment in this world, there is an individual or group who took action in the presence of discomfort to achieve a goal. WYFLION gets parents up to change a diaper in the middle of the night, gives explorers the ability to peer around the next bend, pushes athletes through a challenging workout, and keeps relationships intact through rough patches - it is the fuel for heroes great and small. WYFLION is the unwritten clause of the Golden Rule - Do onto others as you would have them do onto you (whether you feel like it or not). WYFLION is the key to a life of freedom.
The real secret to lasting happiness is the awareness and acceptance that the feelings of happiness do not last.No matter what you do, the comfortable feelings of happiness come and go in the same way that the uncomfortable feelings of fear, sadness, anxiety, stress, anger, boredom, frustration, and restlessness come and go. No matter what you do, discomfort is going to show up again. When you eat, you don't expect that you are done with hunger forever - you accept that the discomfort of hunger will show up again. This is true for every type of discomfort. There is no way to extinguish this integral part of being human. The beauty is that you can use discomfort as an opportunity to reorient your attention to what is most important. Mindfully accepting and purposely responding to discomfort without desperately and reactively seeking relief is the foundation of a good life.This takes practice - mindful and purposeful practice.
The elements of mindful practice are opening up, noticing, and accepting whatever shows up - pleasant or unpleasant. You can set aside time at the beginning and ending of each day - 5 to 20 minutes - to sit mindfully. You can stop 3-5 times a day for 10 - 60 seconds at a time to practice being mindful. You can practice being mindful in any activity - walking, driving, eating, talking, listening, working, playing. The elements of purposeful practice are commitment, opportunity and action. There are thousands of opportunities everyday to identify what is most important and take some small meaningful action. This practice - Opening, Noticing, Accepting, Commitment, Opportunity, Action (ONACOA) - builds the core skills of exceptional well-being and performance.
So, here it is, the plan for being happy and unstoppable: Practice being mindful of accepting discomfort and taking committed action in its presence. Make an attempt, fail, get up, and make a new attempt. Practice compassion for yourself and others and gratitude for the simple opportunity to be human. When a new discomfort shows up, begin again.