We're always looking for ways to make our lives easier. But in our relentless pursuit of comfort and convenience, we've lost sight of just how valuable discomfort can be. The easiest way is rarely the most fulfilling.
Instead of cutting corners and automating our lives, we'd be better off seeking more opportunities to practice voluntary hardship, which taps into a practical, sustainable source of fulfillment. Voluntary hardship challenges us to propel ourselves forward, appreciate what we have, and embrace discomfort–the things that make us feel alive and engaged. While it contradicts society's obsession with immediate gratification, that's precisely the reason it's a more effective strategy.
What is voluntary hardship?
Voluntary hardship is opting for self-sufficiency in place of luxury and convenience. This means putting more effort in, not less. While voluntary hardship can take a variety of forms, it is not self-inflicted harm or irrational behavior. Rather, it is self-initiated discomfort and rational in its intentions. Examples include:
- Walking a few miles each day to reconnect with yourself and your surroundings
- Riding your bike to work instead of driving
- Heading out for a run to decompress, instead of distracting yourself by staring at a screen
- Cooking from scratch and preparing your own food instead of eating out
- Seeing through a commitment you've made, even though it might be easier to quit
- Living below your means for the next month and not impulsively buying any new gadgets, clothing, [fill in the blank]
Vital to the process
As our lives become increasingly automated and the fulfillment of our desires near instantaneous, we restrict much of the randomness and discomfort that are inherent to life. These are the conditions we evolved to thrive in. With genetic adaptations requiring roughly 25,000 years to appear in humans, we're rather ill-equipped for our sterile, modern lives–however secure they might be. Without stimulation and a degree of unpredictability, it's no surprise we often feel restless or bored. We crave opportunities to feel engaged and demonstrate our resourcefulness.
The less effort/energy required, the more we distance ourselves from the very thing that defines life. We all but eliminate ourselves from the equation. As a result, nothing we do seems satisfying or meaningful because we never sacrificed anything to get there. While putting in the work–what voluntary hardship prepares us for–is never easy, it's here where we're able to achieve a state of flow and find lasting fulfillment. Practicing voluntary hardship reconnects us with this. It's a much-needed reminder that we are, in fact, a vital part of the process.
In pursuit of self-sufficiency, voluntary hardship also cultivates a natural sense of gratitude. We're able to find greater meaning in the little things. Someone who leads a life of perpetual comfort and convenience often takes the luxuries they have for granted. The person who practices voluntary hardship, by occasionally abstaining from those luxuries, is able to appreciate the significance of what they have and leverage that perspective.
Walking more, in addition to helping us better appreciate our immediate surroundings, reminds us to appreciate the convenience of modern transportation. Cooking more helps reconnect us with the source of our food and appreciate the work it takes to grow and prepare. Living below our means allows us to better appreciate the occasional purchase and reminds us how few things we actually need.
Comfort in Discomfort
Paradoxically, greater comfort is often found through embracing discomfort. By this, I mean that intermittent periods of discomfort prepare us to handle a wider range of scenarios. As a result, we expand our threshold for comfort and end up experiencing less discomfort than those who cling to convenience and familiarity.
The latter are utterly unfamiliar and unprepared for anything outside of their limited comfort zones. They find themselves in positions of considerable vulnerability; rigid and unable to adapt. Even the slightest change in fortune has the capacity to catch them off guard and bring about conditions they feel to be unbearable. As a result, they spend far more time anticipating and dreading potential discomforts. Whereas a person who practices voluntary hardship worries less because they are familiar with discomfort and capable of adapting to the situation.
Without practicing voluntary hardship, we cannot expect to have the the endurance or mental fortitude to handle unexpected hardship when it inevitably comes our way. The calm resourcefulness that comes from practicing voluntary hardship is not something that can be turned off and on as the situation requires. We have to practice pushing ourselves in the little things so we're able to adapt when the stakes are at their highest. How we do anything is how we do everything.
Alive and Able
When we practice voluntary hardship, we build endurance to pursue what's worthwhile and the self-discipline to remain focused. The undisciplined, in their search for immediate gratification and the path of least resistance, allow comfort and convenience to become confines which prevent them from fully experiencing life.
Remember you can still find the motivation to move forward under your own power. You can still think for yourself and formulate original thoughts. You are still capable of recognizing that lasting fulfillment is found in the quality of your character, not in the quantity of your possessions. You are still able to fully appreciate the fleeting moment that is this life. Voluntary hardship reminds us of these truths. Above all, it reminds us that we're alive and able.
 Junger, Sebastian. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. 2016.