The first time I ever saw the phrase “Comfort Zone” was on the old thermostat for the furnace in my old apartment. Since then, I usually first associate “Comfort Zone” with heating and air conditioning and not the way it is used in popular psychology.
I came across the term the other day on Facebook. A quote by John Maxwell was on a picture of a kitten (of course). It said, “If we’re growing, we’re always going to be out of our comfort zone.” This triggered my mind to contemplate comfort zones.
I’m of at least two minds about comfort zones and “growth”. I agree that stretching our boundaries and trying new things are constructive, helpful lifestyle choices. On the other hand, it seems like many people have an unhealthy obsession with “growth” and condemnation of comfort zones.
By definition, human beings are warm-blooded, living organisms. In high school biology class, we learn that warm-blooded animals naturally seek to maintain a constant bodily temperature. Living beings also seek to maintain a healthy balance in the amount of water and nutrients within its body.
Functions, like breathing and heart rate are also maintained within certain parameters. So, it seems that, biologically, we basically seek to maintain a comfort zone. I think we warm-blooded creatures also seek a psychological comfort zone. If you observe an animal, you’ll notice that it seeks to achieve equilibrium and safety within a comfort zone. Regardless of whether its a squirrel, a cat, or a human, creatures seem to gravitate towards some sort of comfort zone.
We do not like a lack of stimulation or boredom. We like to spend more time in bed each morning, but at some point we want to arise and discover the day. Similarly we do not like an over-abundance of stimulation or anxiety. After an afternoon of theme-park roller coaster rides, a person craves a break and relief from stress. There’s a middle zone that allows us to feel contented. It’s a comfort zone where we thrive. It’s a subjective experience.
Certainly the pop-psychologists have some valid arguments. They tell us to muster up the courage to take risks. They advocate that we “go where there are no guarantees” and be fearless. I agree that people need to do this and not just be lumps on logs or sticks in mud. However, I wonder, where are the boundaries? When do we know if we are harming ourselves, other people, and the world around us when we act outside of our comfort zones?
How do we know when we have gotten not only out of our comfort zone but have entered a harmful zone? If what we’re doing is mostly selfish, we run the risk of hurting others. We are free to operate our motor vehicles within a certain “zone” of restrictions. We have traffic lights at intersections, speed limits, and lane restrictions for very good reasons. If we run red lights, proceed extremely fast (or too slow), or travel in the wrong lane, we may harm or kill ourselves and other people.
There are other obvious actions we are capable of doing that are legally restricted or prohibited, for very good reasons. There are also some restrictions and prohibitions that need to be altered or eliminated because they go too far in the process of keeping society acting within certain boundaries. Hence, we have a social comfort zone.
Human progress can only happen when we leave many social comfort zones. History shows that the greater good is achieved when this happens. For centuries, society was OK with slavery, but when the comfort zone of involuntary servitude was left behind, humanity benefited. When the social comfort zones regarding equal rights for women, racial/ethnic minorities, and LGBT people are stretched, more people can thrive. Certainly the tiresome social comfort zones of the past caused great harm and suffering.
In national, political terms, the comfort zone of rule by monarchs and dictators felt acceptable for many years. Democracy required nations to go outside their national comfort zones and take the risk of self-government. Democracy is fraught with uncharted political territory. It’s certainly imperfect and is constantly being tested. It might be argued that democracy has a shifting comfort zone or perhaps none at all. There are powerful factions that wish to retreat to the comfort zone and others who want society to leave the comfort zone altogether. This is why the conservative-liberal debate will be with us for a long time. Traditionalists versus progressivists have been at each others’ throats for years.
We come full circle to wondering how much self-interest lies inside or outside the comfort zone. Will our actions harm or benefit the greatest number of people? Do we not care or do we care greatly? Do we want to be more like Benito Mussolini or more like Martin Luther King, Junior? The social comfort zone lies somewhere between these two examples. On the “social thermostat” Mussolini was coldly outside the comfort zone and MLK was warmly outside of it.
Warm-blooded creatures biologically prefer to exist in a warmer comfort zone. We also tend to psychologically prefer a warmer comfort zone. As a rule, we are less happy if we grow up in a cold, neglectful, selfish family. We do much better when we are nurtured in a warm, attentive, altruistic family environment. When children and adolescents explore areas outside the comfort zone, they do so more effectively if they have a healthy comfort zone to return to. Most of us have an ache for a happy home, a place of safety for us to find shelter and not be questioned.
Yet an individual develops beyond childhood and the teen years. At the same time, the social norms of the family adjust to fit the changing offspring. Ideally, as the child explores beyond the family’s comfort zone, the family begins to stretch outside it as well. A new comfort zone develops as the child develops. As the child’s individuality matures, the family either stays stagnant or adjusts along with the unfamiliar surprises from the child. Each member of the family either retains or stretches her or his personal comfort zones.
Sometimes we push ourselves too far or society pushes back too hard. This is a large part of pain and suffering for each of us. Sometimes we need the comfort zone in order to heal and recoup our energies. There are many times we must retreat into a friendly space to enjoy a hearty meal and a soft bed.
Oftentimes it is best to get away from ambition and drive. These are the times to calm the chattering mind and find the comfort zone of silence. In my opinion, it is time to stop denigrating our comfort zones and accept them. This is not to say that we should surrender to our comfort zones. It is to say that we recognize them and their usefulness. When the comfort zone contains authentic love and empathy, it is most useful. When the comfort zone is disguised as rigidity, outmoded beliefs, or inertia it is best to abandon it.
In my opinion, the comfort zone is best when it fosters joy for everyone and harmful when it causes mental laziness and unhappiness. The trick is finding the healthiest balance between comfort and fresh discovery.