The ancient Stoic philosophers had many ideas for how to live the good life that might sound counter-intuitive to modern minds. One of these concepts is the idea of Voluntary Discomfort; to voluntarily put yourself in situations in where you are likely to experience discomfort, both physical or mentally
Ancient Origins of seeking discomfort
Already the ancient Greeks used Voluntary Discomfort as a way to get on the path to towards the good life. The stoic Epictetus advice us that when we say goodbye to a friend, we should remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. Seneca recommends us not only to contemplate bad things happening to us, but to periodically live as if bad things already happened. An example of this might be to practice poverty by eating simple food and dress plainly. Musonius Rufus took this concept even further and suggested that we should cause bad things to happen to us. From time to time we would cause ourselves to experience discomforts that could have been easily avoided. Some ways to do this might be to walk without shoes, under dress for cold weather, or not eat for a day or two despite having food available. This might sound like masochism, but it’s actually a proven way to build a more resilient mindset and appriciate of the blessing nature has bestowed upon us.
3 Books about Voluntary Discomfort
Here are 3 books that will inspire you to lean into what is uncomfortable and discover the benefits you can reap for a wilder, tougher and more challenging lifestyle. I have picked the books that helped me get off the couch and motivated me to introduce Voluntary Discomfort into my personal life. Each book approaches the subject from a slightly different angle and reading one won’t devalue the benefits of reading the other books. It’s the trinity of voluntary discomfort in book form, and I can tell you from personal experience: it works, and it’s worth it!
1. The Comfort Crisis – Michael Easter
We live in a cushioned and temperature controlled world of comfort and with everyday we eliminate ever smaller annoyances. We must be on track to reach happiness, fulfillment and tranquility for everyone very soon? Right?! Quite the opposite:
“A radical new body of evidence show that people are at their best— physically harder, mentally tougher and spiritually sounder- after experiencing the same discomfort that our early ancestors were exposed to every day.”
“Scientist are finding that certain discomfort protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, depression and anxiety. And even more fundamental issues like feeling a lack of meaning & purpose.“
In this book we learn why modern life makes us anxious an depressed and it gives us practical tool for how to reintroduce common stressors that our ancestors faces every day into our modern lives. And be better off because of it?
The book contains the latest health research, encounters with practitioners of Voluntary Discomfort, and the authors own experience of “rewilding” his life.
2. Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins
David Goggins went from being fat and lazy to becoming a Navy SEAL and one of the worlds foremost endurance athletes. In this autobiographical book Goggins spills the beans on how he created a mindset that allowed him to set the world record for most pull-ups (4030!!! I could do 12 when ‘m at my best). If someone can tell us about the leaning into discomfort and building a resilient mindset then its David Goggins. It’s hard to read this book an not reevaluate where you set the bar for yourself.
3. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
If you want to learn about Voluntary Discomfort then it’s obvious to consult the ancient Stoic philosophers.
Why would the Stoics voluntarily put themselves in uncomfortable situations? To develop appreciation and gratitude for what I already have, prepare for future adversity, and to find out what’s truly valuable (and what’s not!)
Here are a few ways you can a modern Stoic could engage in Voluntary Discomfort:
❗️ Under dress for cold weather.
❗️ Forgo pleasures such a passing of a glass of wine of watching you favorite show.
❗️ Sleep on the floor instead of the bed.
❗️ Eat only plain foods and drink only water for a week.
❗️ Emulate poverty by dressing in shabby clothes and sleep under a bridge.
❗️ Not drink anything for a day.
❗️Reading the comments on articles and videos on the internet to elicit anger and practice equanimity (I found this one on Reddit 👍🏻)
❗️ Sleep without a pillow.
No other books have impacted my life to the same extent as this one. It was the book that introduced me to Stoicism and the idea of Voluntary Discomfort and my life has never been the same. What makes this book stand out is that it’s focused on the practical aspects of philosophy and it’s full of exercises and examples of how you can embody it even in a modern context.
Pick up this book today and learn about Negative Visualization, self denial and other tools the ancient stoics used to build resilience and attain tranquility.
Video Review (Coming Feb 2022!) / Written Review (Coming Feb 2021!)