Stoicism is a way of life that helps to endure hardship and enjoy life. It proposes that we should use reason to align ourselves with the flow of life. The Stoics call this ‘living in accordance with Nature’. In Ancient Greece and Rome, its followers ranged from slaves to emperors and from athletes to business men.
Stoics use a variety of exercises to attain inner peace and happiness. One of these is to consciously practice voluntary discomfort. This means: putting ourselves in situations that we don’t particularly like, in order to grow beyond them. In this article, let’s take a look at what the practice of voluntary discomfort entails.
The first question that pops up in everybody’s mind when talking about voluntary discomfort is: why? Why would any sane person willingly put himself in a situation that is uncomfortable? How does discomfort contribute to inner peace and happiness? Is the opposite not true: to be peaceful and happiness, don’t you need comfort?
Don’t worry: there is a good reason for doing this. Essentially, voluntary discomfort allows you to cling less to external circumstances and rely on your own strengths instead. It strengthens our mind to endure hardship, whenever this may befall us. Exposing ourselves to hardships in untroubled times prepares us for more difficult times ahead. It’s training for the mind. I like to see voluntary discomfort as a trade between feeling a little bit worse right now to be stronger in the future.
Now that the value of voluntary discomfort is clear, let’s take a look at what it is. We can separate two types of voluntary discomfort: physical discomfort and emotional discomfort.
Physical discomfort puts our body in an uncomfortable state, and includes activities like cold showers, fasting, under-dressing for the weather, and many more. This is the most common practice of voluntary discomfort among Stoics, and the easiest of the two types. Moreover, there are many gradations in this practice, so everyone can find the gradation that fits him or her best. For example, starting Stoics should not put themselves in physical danger by attempting to fast for a long period, or get seriously ill after walking around in shorts on a freezing winter day. However, a few minutes under a cold shower should be no problem to most (unless of course you have heart or other medical issues). The threshold to practice this kind of discomfort is therefore low, but the results can be big. Imagine what it feels like to stand under a cold shower without minding the cold at at all. That’s a great testimony of endurance.
Emotional discomfort induces us to experience negative emotions (passions) such as shame, anger or fear. A famous example in Stoic texts is that of Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, who was challenged to walk through Athens drenched in lentil soup. Diogenes the Cynic also was a master at emotional discomfort and is rumored to sleep on the streets, and urinate, defecate and masturbate in public – which, by the way, I don’t endorse because of other ethical arguments. Putting yourself in an situation of emotional distress allows you to experience that it is actually not the end of the world. If you are then later forced in a similarly distressing situation (public opposition, extreme poverty, etc.) you are better able to cope with it.
In short, physical and emotional discomfort both allow you to train your mind now for discomfort in the future. It is like a vaccine: by injecting yourself with a controlled dose of discomfort now, you are better resistant to future discomfort. This, in turn, contributes to inner peace and happiness over the long term.
Direct action: Start small. Next time you shower, end with a few minutes of cold water. You’ll see it’s not the end of the world.