Our world has never been more convenient and comfortable. With just a few taps of our fingers, we can order food to our door, access endless entertainment options, and keep our climate at a steady 72 degrees. We don’t have to put in much effort, much less face any risk or challenge, in order to sustain our daily lives.
In some ways, this quantum leap in humanity’s comfort level is a great boon. But in other ways, it’s absolutely killing our minds, bodies, and spirit.
My guest says it’s time to reclaim the currently-hard-to-come-by but truly essential benefits of discomfort. His name is Michael Easter, and he’s a writer, editor, and professor, and the author of The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. Michael first shares how his experience with getting sober helped him discover the life-changing potential of doing hard things, before digging into what fleeing from discomfort is doing to our mental and physical health. We then discuss the Japanese idea of misogis, which involves taking on an epic outdoor challenge, and why Michael decided to do a misogi in which he participated in a month-long caribou hunt in the backcountry of Alaska. Michael shares what he learned from the various challenges he encountered during his misogi — including intense hunger, boredom, solitude, and physical exertion —as well as what research can teach all of us about why we need to incorporate these same kinds of discomforts into our everyday lives.
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- Why getting sober kickstarted this discomfort journey for Michael
- Are there downsides to a comfortable 21st century lifestyle?
- Why does life feel harder, even though we have it pretty good?
- The Japanese practice of “misogi”
- Why Michael decided to do backcountry caribou hunting as his personal misogi
- Why novelty is so important to your perception of time
- The aching boredom that Michael felt in Alaska (and what he learned from it)
- The benefits of solitude
- What hunger taught Michael
- How human physical fitness has changed in the last few millennia
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Our world has never been more convenient and comfortable. With just a few taps of our fingers, we can order food to our door, access endless entertainment options, and keep our climate at a steady 72 degrees. We don’t have to put in much effort, much less face any risk or challenge in order to sustain our daily lives. Some ways, this quantum leap in humanity’s comfort level is a great boon; but in other ways, it’s absolutely killing our minds, bodies and spirit.
My guest says it’s time to reclaim the currently hard to come by, but truly essential benefits of discomfort. His name is Michael Easter. He’s a writer, editor and professor, and the author of The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. Michael first shares how his experience with getting sober helped him discover the life-changing potential of doing hard things, before digging into what fleeing from discomfort is doing to our mental and physical health. We then discuss the Japanese idea of misogi, which involves taking an epic outdoor challenge, and why Michael decided to do misogi, in which he participated in a month-long caribou hunt in the backcountry of Alaska. Michael shares what he learned from the various challenges he encountered during his misogi, including intense hunger, boredom, solitude and physical exertion, as well as what research can tell us all about why we need to incorporate these same kinds of discomforts into our everyday lives. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/comfortcrisis.
Alright, Michael Easter, welcome to the show.
Michael Easter: Thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: So you got a book out, The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. And this book is your journey of getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable and showing the research that the benefits that come with that. What kickstarted this whole thing of exploring discomfort?
Michael Easter: Yeah, I think there’s a handful of things. What really set it off for me, though, is a handful of years ago, I ended up getting sober. So in the book, I talk about I come from this long line of men who just hum on booze and bedlam. My dad once painted his horse green and rode it into a bar with a woman who was not my mom, and it was on St. Patrick’s Day, hence, the green. I have one hilarious story from my family, is that I have a cousin who got thrown into a dry out cell. And he comes to and he realizes that apparently, we’re having an impromptu family reunion, you’ve gotten thrown into this cell with my uncle just on accident.
So anyways, I was starting to ride that same metaphorical horse, if you will, and I realized that I needed to change. I tried a lot to quit drinking. And finally, just something took where I asked for help. And getting sober was definitely the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done. Your body’s really trying to figure out what is going on with this new way of living because alcohol, essentially, becomes a comfort blanket for people who have a drinking problem. It sort of comforts you from the stuff in the world that you just don’t wanna face. Maybe you’re a little unsure of yourself, whatever; when you drink, it fixes that. And once you take that away, it’s like, “Oh, man! Now, I gotta live normally.”
And so going through that, it was hell for a while. But then, you come out the other side and it’s like, “My life just got so much better in every single way possible.” I can’t even… I mean just anything that you could think could go better went better. And so from that experience, I could see when I was drinking, I didn’t wanna get sober ’cause I was afraid of having to go through that and see what would happen on the other side. But once I did, I was like, “Man! Things got better.” So I could see like, “Oh, there’s just benefits in discomfort and doing these things that we don’t wanna do, facing our fears and just really diving into discomfort.”
Brett McKay: So yeah, you start to do this deep-dive, and you started exploring in the ways in which modern life… We’re extremely comfortable, and we should all feel blessed and fortunate that we live in an age where there’s antibiotics, there’s running water. But then you also highlight, there’s some downsides to that as well. How can comfort cause problems in our lives?
Michael Easter: Yeah, so… And that was the thing, is after I got sober, I had this, I noticed that going through discomfort was good. And always leaning into comfort, like I had been doing, maybe it wasn’t good. And then I sort of realized, “Oh, my God! My life is still completely, completely surrounded in comfort.” If you stop and focus on everything around you, basically, everything in our daily lives now that most impacts our daily life, it’s probably new and it’s probably made to make your life more comfortable or easier or less effortful in some way. So think about climate control, alright? We live at 72 degrees. We have cellphones that we can use to basically cure any semblance of boredom we have, or order food and have it delivered directly to our door, stream down videos, whatever. We have this whole transportation system; we live behind screens and we sit in chairs all day. We have this food system where we don’t have to put in any effort at all for food.
And it’s had some consequences. You can tie it to everything from chronic disease, to depression, to even feeling a lack of meaning ’cause it’s like humans thrive on challenges, on being pushed up against and coming out the other side, just like I did, having to get sober. But we often don’t have these in our lives all the time now, and so it’s had some consequences, for sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that idea of sense of meaning or purpose. You hear people reporting how life just seems harder now. It’s like, “Oh, I’m just… ” Everyone’s like everyone’s tired, “I’m so tired.” But it’s weird, it seems… Things feel harder, even though it’s actually… If you compare it to the whole length of human history, it’s pretty easy. What do you think’s going on there? Why does life feel harder even though we’ve got it pretty good today?
Michael Easter: Yeah, that’s a great question. And there is a scientific reason for this, actually. [chuckle] I talked to researchers at Harvard, psychologists, and there’s this idea that the dorky name for it is called prevalence-induced concept change. And I tend to think about it as problem or comfort creep. Essentially, the human brain evolves to make relative comparisons. It’s this brain mechanism that saved us energy so we don’t… When something new is sort of introduced to our lives, that improves our lives, we adapt to it. And we don’t sort of look back and think, “Oh, man! We’re making great progress, this is great.” We look back at the last thing and think, “Oh, man! Now, that’s totally unacceptable to us.” Basically, what happens is we have… As we have more comforts introduced to our lives, we don’t necessarily become more satisfied with them. We just sort of lower our threshold for what we consider comfortable.
This also applies to things like problems. So once we’ve solved a problem, we don’t actually think in our brain, “Oh, I have fewer problems right now.” We just go looking for the next problem to solve, so we sort of end up with the same number of problems, except our new problems are progressively more hollow. So you can think about this as almost the science of first-world problems. We keep on moving the dial into comfort and convenience and having everything done for us, and we don’t think, “Oh, man, 20 years ago, I didn’t have a cellphone. Wow! This is amazing!” Instead, it’s like, “Man! Instagram has crashed. This is the worst thing ever!” And we freak out, right? And this is put at scale to everything in our lives.
Brett McKay: Alright, so yeah, doing hard stuff can put some first-world problems in perspective. So in your quest to figure out for the science of being uncomfortable, one of the first guys you talked to is this sports doctor. He works with a lot of pro athletes, NBA athletes, NFL stars to help them prevent injuries, but he’s also got this idea that he took from Japanese culture called misogis. Can you tell us about this sports doctor and his idea of misogis?
Michael Easter: Yeah, so this guy’s name is Marcus Elliott. He’s a far-out character. So he’s a Harvard MD and he decides he doesn’t wanna be a doctor; he’s gonna go into sports science. And his first job was with the Patriots. They were, at the time, this is in the early 2000s, they had this crazy high hamstring injury rate; it was 21 a year. And he applied real science to sports, which hadn’t really been done before, and he dropped their injury rate to three a year. Then he was a Performance Director for the MLB. And now, he has his own facility where he has contracts with the NBA. So basically, every NBA player, incoming NBA player comes through there, and he does all this really technical scientific stuff where he tracks their movement patterns and applies it to this big algorithm, and he can basically tell you, “Okay, you have this specific movement pattern. When we see that in a player, that means the player, usually, will have a, say 60% chance of tearing an ACL that season.” But he can also tell you like, “Hey, this is a skill you’re really good at, compared to everyone else. Let’s develop that ’cause we think it could help your game.”
So I told you all that to basically tell you this guy is obviously very into science and data, etcetera, but he also knows that not everything that improves, not only athletes, but humans, in general, can be measured. And so he started doing this thing that he calls misogi, and it’s based off this Japanese myth that’s essentially a big physical challenge and conducted in nature. And there are only two rules, and the rules are that it must be truly difficult, which he measures, essentially, by saying, “You should have a 50-50 shot of finishing it, true 50-50 shot.” And then the second rule is that you can’t die. And that part’s pretty straight forward, right?
And ideally, the challenge is a bit kooky. So for example, one year, him and some athletes, they got this 85-pound rock and they walked it five miles under water in the Santa Barbara Channel. And then they’ve also done stuff like, “Okay, we’re gonna strap packs to our back and we’re gonna drive out to the mountains, and we’re just gonna pick the farthest peak we can see and we’re gonna try and hike to it in a day.” They’ve done things like they standup paddleboard across the Santa Barbara Channel after only having standup paddleboarded a few times. So the whole idea here is that you’re putting yourself in a position doing something physical in nature that is going to be very truly challenging for you, where you only have a 50% shot of making it.
And what he’s trying to do is mimic these past challenges that we used to face as we were evolving. As humans evolved, we had to do true challenges in nature all the time. And these were things that our environment would usually naturally show us. So this could be things like having to go on a big hunt, or maybe you’re trying to migrate down to your summering grounds and you’re going over a pass and a gnarly storm hits, maybe it’s a tiger lurking in the bushes. Nowadays, we don’t face these type of challenges. And back in our past, when we would go through these, we would sort of learn something about ourselves and dig deep and become a more confident and competent person.
But nowadays, we don’t really have challenges. You can never be challenged in life, and you can still have plenty of food, you’ll have a comfortable home, you can probably have a decent job, you have a family, which seems totally fine, and it is, but at the same time, let’s say you have this big potential that’s this big circle. Well, it’s like most people just live in this sort of dinner plate sized circle within that. They never really go out and see what exists on the edges of their potential. And by not having any idea of what’s out on those edges, you really miss a lot in life, and you miss learning something about yourself that can really help you in life.
So he believes that by doing these things like misogi, you have this innate evolutionary machinery that gets triggered when you go out and you do these hard things and you really explore the edges of your comfort zone. So you’re putting yourself in a position where failure is totally possible because in the modern world, failure is getting a bad look from your boss or not getting enough likes on Instagram, so we have this outsized fear of failure. And the repercussions of these failures that we really fear, they’re all inside our head, it’s not really gonna affect our livelihood; it’s just gonna make us a little bit stressed and anxious. So by getting out into the wild and doing these misogi-like challenges, you lose a lot of fear, you start to learn something about yourself, things start moving for you, and you come out on the other end, whether you made it or not, as an improved person who’s sort of a lot more confident, a lot more competent.
And so the idea is like, “Let’s introduce some metaphorical tigers back into our life.” And you see these things. When I talk about this, people are like, “Well, this guy sounds kinda kooky,” and it’s like, “Yeah, maybe he is.” But at the same time, you look at how past societies lived and this idea of a myth where a hero sort of leaves the comfort of home, he goes out into this trying middle ground, really struggles, almost fails, but he makes it and he comes out on the other side an improved person. These myths exist throughout time and space. So this is what Joseph Campbell essentially called the hero’s journey.
And you also see them in things like traditional rights of passage. So for example, the Maasai tribe, young men would have to go out and hunt a lion with a spear in order to transition into this new, more confident part of life and become a warrior in the tribe. You have things like Aboriginal Walkabout, the Nez Perce tribe would send people out on these nature quests where they’d go out into nature for a week’s time and they’d fast and they’d have these challenges. But then when they came back, they had learned so much about their potential, and what they’re capable, and they’re ready to become leaders in the tribe. So we’re trying sorta mimic those things that are very important for humans, and have been for millennia, that we just don’t face anymore.
Brett McKay: So in addition to doing these analysis of physiology, is he putting athletes that he consults with through these misogis?
Michael Easter: He makes it an elective. If they wanna, he tells them about it. Some don’t wanna do it, but those that do, you talk to him and he goes, “Those are the people that are… That tend to have the most clutch performances, especially in high-stakes situations because they have this kinda new thing onboard they didn’t really know was there.” They’ve really been tested, and all of a sudden, once you’ve, I don’t know, let’s say standup paddleboarded across the channel when you’re maybe even afraid of water, you’re like, “Man! All of a sudden, a playoff game becomes more manageable.” Not that that’s not a high-stress situation, but you’ve had all these other super high-stress situations that help you sort of buffer that, and you can really dig deep, and you just feel like, “Man! I’ve got something on board. I think I can explore this thing and do it.”
Brett McKay: Alright, so inspired by this idea, you came up with your own misogi, and that was to go backcountry hunting for caribou in Alaska. Where did that come from?
Michael Easter: Yeah, so I had a… I met Marcus, and then through my work, so Marcus tells me about this misogi idea and I’m fascinated by it, and through my work, I’ve become friends with Donnie Vincent. And Donnie Vincent, for people who don’t know, he’s a backcountry bow hunter and filmmaker. And he goes into the world’s most remote, off-the-grid, sort of extreme places, and he’ll hunt for months at a time. He’ll be up there for one month, two months, three months. And he invited me up to the Arctic with him for more than a month on a caribou hunt, and I sort of thought of that idea of misogi and thought, “Man! This might also be a really good way to explore a lot of these discomforts that we’ve removed from our lives.” And I definitely did find some discomfort up there.
For example, we faced constant hunger all the time, we’re eating about 2,000 calories and burning a lot more than that. Everything took effort. This was from carrying our packs, they were usually around 80 lbs all the time, to everything like having to go get water so you can make dinner and have water to drink. We’d have to hike down to this stream, and then hike it all the way back up to camp. And there was… Grizzlies would hang out by the stream, so there’s also a mental stress. There was negative 20 temperatures, really crazy weather that could have been perilous. And even things like long stretches of boredom because you don’t have a cellphone or a TV or a tablet or a computer up there. Even things like being in solitude and really complete silence can be eerie at first. And because I’m hunting, I’m facing the life cycle. And we faced some of those real challenges like I just talked about. We got put in positions where I wanted to quit, but if I would’ve quit, it could have been perilous. So I had to sort of keep going. By coming out on the other side, you learn a lot about yourself. So that’s how I ended up in the Arctic for a month.
Brett McKay: Alright, well, we’ll dig in, I wanna dig into some of these things you learned about hunger and boredom, and things like that. But one thing you mentioned in the book I thought was interesting, as you were preparing for this hunt, and then even after the hunt, you noticed this as well, that you noticed that it felt like time sorta slowed down a bit. And then you actually did research like, “What’s going on there?” And there’s actually a scientific reason why time seemed to slow down a bit as you were doing this misogi. What’s going on there?
Michael Easter: Yeah, so this was really, really fascinating to me. The human brain is essentially programmed to default into a predictable routine. Now, this is thanks to how we evolved because as we evolved, we lived in these dangerous, trying, uncomfortable environments, and having predictability in our life, it kept us safe. It let us know how to avoid animals, where to get food. And we would rinse and repeat to keep us safe. But now that our world is sort of safe and predictable, it’s an evolutionary bug. It sort of traps us within this comfort zone and this routine where we just do the same stuff every day, day in and day out. So take me as an example, and this is slightly changed because of the pandemic, but I eat the same breakfast every morning, I drive the same route to work, and listen to the same radio station, or whatever it is. I basically have… Do the same job, I have the same basic conversation with co-workers. When I go home, I eat the same basic dinner. And on the weekends, I do the same thing. It’s like we live in these very, very routine lives.
Now, the problem with that is that once you’ve really settled into a routine and just rinsed and repeated it so often, it causes your brain to go on autopilot. So you’re essentially sleepwalking through life. This saves your brain energy, but it also means you’re not aware of what’s going on around. You can totally tune out. So this is why, if you’ve ever noticed, when you’re driving and it’s a route you’ve taken all the time, you can drive for 20 minutes and then be thinking and be like, “Oh, wait, I don’t even… I wasn’t really paying attention.” You’re just stuck up inside your head. And I think William James said it best, is that at the end of your life, what your life is, is that which you’ve been aware of. So if you’re stuck in this cycle of being up inside your head, just doing the same thing day in, day out, you’re never gonna remember having the same breakfast you ate every morning and watching the same Netflix. These are just not memorable things.
And so when you do new novel things, for me, that was going up to Alaska, but also even having to train to go to the Arctic and learn all this different stuff for this book, it essentially kicks you out of this autopilot mode because all of a sudden, your brain doesn’t know what to expect and how to respond to what’s coming in. So you essentially get kicked in the butt into awareness. It’s like a nice little wake-up call. So in this sense, I almost think about it as getting out of our comfort zone to do and learn new things. It’s a lot like meditation, but you don’t have to sit and focus on your breath; you just… It forces you into that awareness that meditation is sort of looking after.
And the research also shows that when we do new things, it slows down our sense of time. And this goes back to you can’t… You don’t know what to predict, you can’t expect what’s coming on, so you really have to be aware. And this seems to have a contracting effect in terms of time. And this is actually why time seems slower when we were kids because everything was new, then. So you’re constantly learning and doing new things and it just makes the time go less slower. This is another thing that William James, the Father of Psychology, was writing about in the 1800s. And they’ve followed up with studies on this, and people consistently report that when they’re learning and doing new things, time slows down, which I find funny.
So my background, for a little more, is that I worked at Men’s Health Magazine for a lot of years, and I still am a Contributing Editor there. And now, I’m a Professor at UNLV and I write books. But in some of my work for Men’s Health, I’m always covering these guys that tends to always be men, to be honest, who are really fascinated by longevity and living longer. And I’ve covered people who’ve done, frankly, some really strange things like gotten illegal pharmaceuticals that I think are gonna help them live longer. I’ve covered guys who, I don’t know if you’ve heard of blood boys, but the idea is, essentially, by pumping the blood of a younger person into your blood, the plasma can help you live longer. So just all these wacky methods to live longer, but to me, it’s like, “Who cares if you have more years if you’re stuck in this routine and you don’t remember any of them?” And it just goes by in this sort of blur where you look back on your life and you’re like, “Oh, man! Wait, what did I do? I was kinda stuck in my head the whole time.” By doing and learning new things, you’re slowing down time, and it allows you to really sort of squeeze more out of the time that you have on Earth.
Brett McKay: Alright, so if you feel like you’re on cruise control to the grave and you wanna disrupt that, just start doing some hard things. That’s one quick way to do that, where life feels more extended and prolonged.
Michael Easter: Yes, exactly.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about you. You go on your hunt, and one of the things you talk about you noticed first right away was just being bored, really. Not just like bored. You’re in the doctor’s office waiting for your appointment. It is the most boredom you’ve ever felt in your entire life. How soon did you feel that boredom?
Michael Easter: Oh, man! So we’re up there hunting caribou, and my time in the… My month in the Arctic is the overarching narrative of the book. And then as I talk about each of these elemental discomforts that humans need to face, I go into different on-ground reporting. But we’re up there, hunting for caribou, and caribou migrate up to summering and wintering grounds, they’re always moving. They can run 55 miles an hour, which is insane. So a lot of it is you get on a glassing knob and where you think that they might be coming through, and you just sort of wait to see if you’re right. And my cell phone doesn’t work up there, it’s essentially a useless brick. I didn’t bring a book. It’s not like I brought any other real electronics. So it’s like: What do you do with your time? All of a sudden, I’m like, “Holy crap! I’ve never been this bored in my life.”
So I start, I think for a while. And then I’m reading the labels on my Clif Bars, just really scrutinizing them; reading all the labels on my outdoor gear. Then when that gets… That eventually gets boring. So I ended up writing some of the book. Then that gets boring, and I’m like, “Okay, I guess I’ll come up with my Christmas list, figure out what everyone’s getting for Christmas.” So I’m doing one thing after another to stave off boredom.
And this is so radically different than life at home because when I’m at home, any time I feel boredom, I’ve got a cell phone in my pocket, I’ve got a TV on the wall that has Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max. I can go on for days. I’ve got a computer that has access to the Internet. We have so many different ways, easy, effortless ways to deal with our boredom now, and our default is to just dive into some sort of electronic device to deal with boredom because boredom is uncomfortable. It’s this evolutionary discomfort that we evolve to have that yells at us to say, “Hey, whatever you’re doing right now, it’s an inefficient use of your time, so you should do something else.” And back in the day, that thing might have been like, “Okay, I’ve been picking berries at this bush for an hour.” And once it became harder and harder to pick berries, boredom would kick on and it’d be like, “Okay, this isn’t a good use of your time anymore. Why don’t you go hunt? Or why don’t you go to another bush and pick its berries ’cause it’ll have more and they’ll be easier to access.”
But now, our escape from boredom, as one researcher put it is like junk food for our mind. We just dive right into, usually, our phone. So we spend… We now spend, if you look at the data, 11 hours a day, on average, engaging with media, which is a ton of media. Media wasn’t even in our lives 100 years ago and now, it’s essentially become our lives, and this has had definite repercussions for our brain.
Up in Alaska, because I didn’t have this super easy outlet for boredom, I have this 11 hours a day back, it’s like, “What do I do with it?” My mind went inward. I thought of different things that I could do that would be productive. I did productive things like writing a book in my little weatherproof notebook. I thought and I planned, and I did all these sort of productive things. I also had great conversations with the two guides I was up there with. Noticed nature, sat with myself. And it was really enlightening and, frankly, productive and a lot more interesting than what I might find on Instagram or watching another episode of Top Chef.
And so when I got back home, I looked at a lot of the research on boredom, and it also turns out that when we are paying attention to anything in the outside world, our brain is working really, really hard. And when we face boredom and have to go inward and think about, “Okay, what am I gonna do next?” It kicks on a restorative state called the default mode network, so this is this rest period that lets our brain revive and come back to become stronger, more or less. So the benefits of giving your brain downtime by facing boredom is it’s associated with a lot more creativity, it’s associated with lower rates of anxiety, and it also can lead to more focus and productivity.
So I think we live in a world now where because cell phones are new and they actively steal our attention, everyone, you read all these stories that are like, “Use your cell phone less. Use your cell phone less.” How do I use my cell phone less? But the reality is if you decide you’re gonna use your cell phone less and you just use this time you’ve gained to watch Netflix, your brain doesn’t know the difference. So I think it’s a lot better and more productive to think more boredom instead of less cell phone or less TV or less computer, just put yourself in these positions where you can become bored. And it’s not easy. Cell phones are great, don’t get me wrong. But we need this.
Brett McKay: And so another thing you noticed when you’re out there is how alone you were. There was probably no one for hundreds of miles, except for you and the guides. And you noticed there was actually… It was hard to be away from people. But then you also notice there’s actually something enjoyable, you got a benefit out of the solitude. What was that?
Michael Easter: Yeah, we… So at one point, you have to take all these, to get way out in the Arctic on the tundra, you have to take all these little planes, and they land on the tundra, and you have to do a lot of faring. So at one point, I got dropped about 100 miles from any semblance of civilization. And the guy I was with, he was gonna go before me to our next stop ’cause you have to take successively smaller planes. And so I’m totally alone out there, except there’s big clods of grizzly bear poop all around, so I’m freaking out. And it hits me that I’d never been that alone in my life. There’s no one around me in terms of humans for miles and miles and miles, but there’s also no one with me through my cell phone, through text, through Instagram, say through podcasts or TV or whatever. Today, even when people think they’re alone, they’re usually not ’cause they’re usually engaging with other people through different devices. And this is a paradox now because despite the fact that people say they’re more lonely than ever, and the data does really bear that out, we’re never actually alone. We’re always with people, somehow.
And being alone out there, it was definitely uncomfortable at first ’cause you’re like, “Oh, man! If a storm comes in, I could be stranded out here for days. If a grizzly bear comes around, I’m a buck 70, and he’s about 1,500 lbs. That’s not gonna be fun.” [chuckle] But then it sort of became interesting because I started to sort of introspect and think, “Man! All of a sudden, I’m totally freed from society.” And without society in the equation, this social narrative of how that I should think and act and behave, it doesn’t actually hold up. All of a sudden, you start to realize, “Man! I do a lot of stuff in my life just as a reaction to society because this is what society says that a man at 30 whatever years old should be doing.” So it’s freeing. You feel a little bit unencumbered and unaffected. And it’s a welcome change from home.
And so the message here is not that social connection is bad, not at all. Social connection is super important. We know this from the research. We know that there are big downsides to loneliness. But the message is more that there’s a difference between loneliness and solitude. Solitude is sort of choosing to be by yourself and using that time for positive introspection, for creativity and for growth, and sort of getting to know yourself, which sounds cheesy, but I think a lot of us just run on autopilot all the time. We don’t really understand how we really feel about things. And we also know from things like… There’s research backing this and I talk to scientists, but we also know things from thousands of years of religious, spiritual and intellectual disciplines around the world that solitude is important. So think about Jesus spent 40 days in the desert in solitude, sort of coming to the center of his faith with the Temptation of the Christ. You had Buddha, he exits the wealthy palace gates to go roam the world in solitude. You had Henry David Thoreau. He goes out and he lives at Walden Pond alone, away from society. Even Lincoln was very, very heavy into solitude. That’s where he got his best work done.
So the researchers that I talked to think that we should be thinking about trying to build this capacity to be alone. It’s a thing that we have less and less of now. When they poll people, they tend to say, “I feel very uncomfortable when I’m alone,” but we need to flip that because if your social connections ever die off and you are alone, well, you’re gonna be in a pickle. But if you can build this capacity to just be with yourself and use solitude as a time to introspect, get to know yourself, use it for creativity, use it for whatever you wanna do, but really just to sort of get something on board, be okay with yourself, that’s gonna move the dial for you in your life and help you really understand yourself better and live a richer life, frankly.
Brett McKay: Alright, so another discomfort you experienced on this trip was hunger. So you’re out in the Alaskan wilds, the only thing you have to eat is what you pack in or what you kill. And so it took a while before you actually got anything, so you’re just basically relying on what you brought in. What was that hunger like? Have you ever experienced a hunger like that before?
Michael Easter: No, sir, I had not. [chuckle] So we packed in about 2,000 calories a day in these freeze-dried Mountain House meals. I don’t know if you’ve ever had those.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they’re tasty. They’re alright.
Michael Easter: Yeah, yeah, they’re not bad.
Brett McKay: They’re not bad.
Michael Easter: They’re actually very, very delicious when you’re on day 30 of not enough food. But we packed in those and Clif Bars, so about 2,000 calories. But the thing is, is we’re burning anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 a day ’cause we’re just moving and carrying heavy stuff all day. So probably after the first week, I just started to become totally ravenous. It’s like I’m having to go into my next belt loop, just losing weight pretty quick. And also, to your point, the hunger is increasing over time, and we’re hunting, there’s a real objective to this. We can solve this, but hunting is not easy. I mean I’m up there with Donnie and he’s arguably one of the best hunters in the world, and it took us a long time to finally get a caribou. So as we’re hungry, your mind starts to really go to food. You just… All you can do is think about your hunger and really feel it deeply.
And before I got up there, though, my normal life, I couldn’t have told you the last time that I was truly physiologically, deeply hungry. I would eat because, “Oh, it’s breakfast” and I eat breakfast at 10:00 AM or whatever the time is. Or because I’m stressed, it’s like, “Oh, man! You know, I just got this crappy email. Oh! I’m just gonna reflexively have some M&M’s,” or whatever it might be. A lot of research has shown that most of our eating today is not driven by true physiological hunger. Most of it is driven by reasons other than hunger, so things like stress or maybe even boredom or just because a clock says, “This is the time we eat.”
And this is a big reason why 70% of the country is overweight or obese. It’s just we’re constantly eating. I talked to one researcher who studied historical and current eating patterns, and back in the day, humans used to have two meals a day, on average. They just eat and whatever. But now, we’re eating across this 15-hour window; we snack all the time. One researcher basically told me, he’s like, “I don’t… I truly don’t think that people are ever actually hungry anymore.” Of course, there’s individual variation, but as a whole, the country is just eating a lot and often, never facing hunger. And this has had some repercussions. Being overweight and obese is the number one risk factor for chronic disease. The only thing that overtakes it is smoking, but so few people smoke now, rates have dropped, that obesity is really becoming our biggest problem.
And having worked in the health, nutrition, fitness space at Men’s Health and for different magazines, millions of people try to diet every year. But I think the stat is something like 90-something percent of diets fail. And we have all these diets out there that tell us, “Eat this, not that,” or it’s like one food or one ingredient. That is the culprit, that is the reason why you’re fat or why you can’t lose weight. But the reality is, is that all diets work by the same mechanism: By eating less, you end up dropping your calories and you lose weight. And there’s a little bit of debate around that, but the vast majority of scientists I speak to, that’s what’s going on here.
And so by being in Alaska, I’m eating this crappy, ultra-processed food, tastes like crap, but I’m having to go through hunger, and when I get home, I step on that scale, I’m 10 lbs lighter. So it really showed me, “Oh, the key to really changing your body,” not that I was really overweight going in, but it really showed me, “What you eat is not as important as how much you eat and also, why you eat.”
So humans have two types of hunger. I’ve sort of alluded to this. We have reward hunger and real hunger. As we evolved, we developed these mechanisms that really reward us to overeat, to eat too much too often. Now, back in the day, that wasn’t possible, there just wasn’t enough food. But now, we’re sort of surrounded in this sea food, and we can use those reward mechanisms to essentially comfort us. So you think of a term like “comfort food”. So food can become a widget for a lot of people.
And being in Alaska and coming back with that 10 lbs lighter, I wanted to learn more about this idea of how people relate to food. So I traveled down to Austin and I meet this kid whose name is Trevor Kashey. And to say that Trevor is smart is to basically say that LeBron James is good at basketball. I mean this kid is another planet brilliant. And he got his… He finished college at 18, he got his PhD at 23. He did a bunch of work in a cancer lab. And then he decided that he… He’d always been interested in sport and nutrition, and he’d been sort of working with people on the side and was really good at it. And he decided to open his own sort of nutrition firm.
And what’s interesting about him is that, to the point I made earlier, that really, he’s wondering why you eat. He doesn’t care so much what you eat; that’ll figure itself out over time and you’ll find foods that help you fend off hunger for longer. He’s more interested in why you eat and he’s more interested in getting you okay with facing the discomfort of hunger, realizing that hunger, feeling hunger, real hunger every now and then is good. You’re gonna need to do that if you want to lose weight. And his clients, they tend to be either really great athletes or Navy SEAL types, CEO types, or they’re people who have tried, literally, everything, and as a last ditch effort before bariatric surgery, they’re gonna come to him. And he’s really moved the dial for people, and he’s just a fascinating, fascinating person, getting people to unpeel these layers of, “Okay, what does hunger feel like? Why are you eating in the first place? Etcetera, etcetera.” So yeah, it was definitely an interesting phenomenon, I’ll tell you that.
And there’s other really fascinating… I won’t get into this too much, go off topic, but there’s a really interesting study called the Minnesota Starvation Study from the 1940s, and they did it in the run up to World War… During World War II because during World War II in Europe, more people, about the same amount of people died from starvation as did in battle. And so the US wanted to figure out, “Okay, how do we re-feed these people safely, and what happens to starving people?” So they got these guys and they basically starved them and tracked what happened to them. And your body has all these amazing mechanisms to keep you alive. It slows down your metabolism, drops your core temperature, and it makes your brain start to obsess about hunger. And I definitely felt that obsession, for sure.
Brett McKay: And yeah, lots of people find those articles, too, a few about fasting, there’s benefits there, your body just, when you don’t have any food, it starts eating itself in a way to clean things up, and that can help with longevity as well. They found that mice that fast or don’t eat that much live longer than mice that eat all the time.
Michael Easter: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So that research is really interesting. So it kicks on this thing called autophagy, where your body starts to burn cells, and it tends to burn its weakest cells, ones that are damaged, and those cells are associated with disease and even diseases like cancer. So they think that fasting can be a good way to sort of keep your body cleaner, get rid of a lot of the damaged stuff that’s associated with disease. It’s not a miracle cure, of course, and I think one of the messages of this book is that we’ve lost so many of these different forms of discomfort that we used to face. Now, in and of themself, any one of those discomforts can be relatively powerful. But once you start to figure out how to weave them all together, man, that is what really, really moves the dial. And I think a lot of times, too often today, people think, “Oh, I can find this one thing and that’s gonna fix all my problems.” It’s like, “No, a lot of times, it’s a combination of things,” so that’s what I’m trying to get at with the overall theme of discomfort.
Brett McKay: So a lot of people, they know that they gotta move their body, they know they sit at the office or their sofa all day. So what they say, they tell us, “Well, I’m gonna go to the gym for an hour and that will sort of just mitigate all that.” And so we exercise. We do the treadmill, we lift weights. When you were out there in Alaska, you didn’t… It seems like your training that you might have done in the gym probably didn’t prepare you much for the actual physical activity you did. What surprised you about the physical activity out there in Alaska, and how it differs from what we think of as physical activity in our modern life?
Michael Easter: Yeah, I tried to prepare. Heck, I spent a lot of the time in the gym, but yeah, nothing can prepare you for constant, constant movement. And the hardest thing that we did is after we finally killed the caribou, we had to pack it back out to camp, so this is probably 100, 110 lbs in my pack, and I have these antlers bursting out of the pack, it was pretty spectacular scene. But then we had to hike five miles all uphill across the tundra back to camp, and the tundra is… I mean it’s like one mile on the tundra is like five miles on a normal trail. It’s just so terrible to walk on. It’s covered in all these things called tundra tussocks, which are these big basketball-sized things of weeds. Some parts of the ground will be frozen or really spongy or muddy. It’s just terrible.
And so with my background, having been at Men’s Health for so long and still doing a lot for them, I’ve had to embed myself in some really extreme gyms. I’ve done some 24-hour endurance events, which is not to say that I’m like a pro athlete here. At the end of the day, I’m this gangly writer, but I’m a pretty thick gangly writer. But this, carrying this weight across the tundra was, by far, the hardest thing that I’d ever done. And what I thought was most interesting, though, is that this is essentially what life was like for our ancestors all the time. If you look at the data, and our ancestors were 14 times more physically active than us, on average. And so I really got interested in this idea of like, “Man! How has our physicality changed? What did we used to do for ‘exercise’?” Which was really just life ’cause people didn’t exercise in the past. “And how does this compare to what we do now?”
So as you alluded to, now, we go into a gym, this temperature-controlled gym, and we get on a treadmill and an elliptical, and we do our 30 minutes on that. Then we go down to the weight room and we curl some perfectly balanced weights a few times, maybe we do some bench presses, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But I travel to Harvard and I meet a guy whose name is Dan Lieberman, he’s an anthropologist there. He basically told me, “Look, when you compare us to other animals, humans are athletically pathetic.” [chuckle] Those are the words that he used, and I just loved that. We are slow compared to most other mammals. We’re also very weak. But in 2004, this guy discovered that humans are good at a couple things, and one of those is running long distances in the heat. So we evolved to do what’s called persistence hunting. We would see an animal and we’d slowly but surely run it down over time on a hot day. Eventually, the animal would overheat and topple over from exhaustion and we would spear it, and then we would have to carry it back to camp. So these persistence hunts could be anywhere from 10-20 miles. We’re talking long distances here.
So the 2004 study was really about distance running and how we sort of evolved to do that. And that study is actually the one, if you’re, I’m sure everyone who’s listening remembers when barefoot running and very, very minimalist running shoes were popular, it sort of set off that whole craze because early humans would have run without shoes on, and there was maybe associated with less injury, which they found it wasn’t necessarily true. And the Lieberman guy I talked to, he secretly hates that he’s been associated with this crazy barefoot running movement. But as I’m packing this caribou out across Alaska, it occurs to me, “Okay, we are so-called, you know, born to run.” But once we run, we have to carry this weight all the way back to camp, and it’s like, “Well did that shape us?”
So I went down this crazy rabbit hole of the act of carrying heavy stuff. And humans are the only animals, it turns out, that are any good at carrying weight across distance, and it’s really shaped our bodies. So the combination of running and then carrying explains why we have these long legs, why we don’t have much fur, it keeps us from overheating. Why we sweat; that also keeps us from overheating. We have these complicated noses that humidify air. And we also have really strong grips to grab stuff so we can walk it. And we also have short torsos, which helps with carrying. So the acts of running and carrying really shaped us as human beings, but allowed to more or less take over the globe and hunt better, and also explore and engage in warfare. And when you look at what humans do now, we still run, so we’ve sort of reintroduced running back into our days, but very few people carry heavy things for distance. And it’s this thing that we evolved to do that these Harvard researchers think is probably uniquely good for us from a fitness perspective.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that led you down to hooking up with GORUCK and learning about that community there, where they’re carrying heavy things for distance.
Michael Easter: Yeah, exactly. So after Harvard, I bombed down to Jacksonville, Florida and I meet Jason McCarthy. And he’s a former Green Beret. Some of your readers, or sorry, I would say “readers” ’cause I’m a writer. Some of your listeners might know him. And he started GORUCK, which is a company that makes these beautiful military spec backpacks that are specifically designed for rucking, which is carrying weight in a pack for distance. So the only people who have really reintroduced carrying back into their days is the military. And rucking is really the foundation of military fitness.
And for the average person, Jason describes it as it’s cardio for people who hate to run, lifting for people who hate the gym. So you’re working both strength and endurance at the same time, which is uncomfortable, but it’s also very approachable. So one of the best things you can do for your fitness is to ruck, just throw… Try not to go over 50 lbs ’cause that just tends to set off injuries, but 50 or below, it’s one of the best things you can do for your fitness. You’re doing all these amazing things that we evolved to do that we don’t do anymore. And it’s so different, and I think, than most workouts now, which I’m not saying that going to the gym and lifting weights isn’t important, or that running on treadmills isn’t important. Those things are obviously good, but does it really in-play with how we are adapted to exercise?
Something like a ruck, you’re not only… You’re working strength and endurance, but you’re also probably outside having to navigate your environment. And there’s some research that says exercising while having some demands on your brain, like hiking along a trail, is how humans evolved to exercise, so it has these benefits that can really improve your brain health over time. So I think we’ve just come so far away, in general, from how we used to be physically active, and we’ve sort of had to engineer these new, strange ways of physical activity, when it’s really a lot… Can be a lot simpler than that. And by simplifying it and thinking about what we used to do in the past, it probably can be more effective in some ways.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one last thing I wanna talk about. You noticed on your trip, you didn’t shower or bathe, obviously. You might have gotten a wet washcloth and cleaned yourself up from some river water. But you noticed that, “Actually, I’m okay.” You would… “I’m not… I don’t have any diseases. I’m fine.” And you actually did some research saying that our overemphasis on cleanliness might be backfiring in some ways.
Michael Easter: Yeah. And now, this has become an interesting question, especially in the time of COVID, but when I’m up there, I don’t shower. If I’m washing my hands, it’s probably in some river water. And when I get back, I’m of course, smell like a garbage dump mixed with the salmon run. It was… The hotel staff was really happy to greet me. [chuckle] But we’ve essentially sanitized everything from our lives. We learned about 100 years ago that germs are associated with disease, and we thought, “Okay, well, then, we should kill every germ.” But it turns out that very, very few germs are actually associated with disease; and a lot of germs and microbes are actually good for us.
So you look at the data and younger people have about a two-to-four-fold risk of things like colon and rectal cancer compared to people born in 1950. And the reason for this, they think, is because we really started to sanitize everything and are always using Purell all the time, and kids don’t go outside as much. We no longer go out and get dirty, but it turns out that when we go out and we expose ourself to dirt and some natural germs, it builds up our defenses and it improves our gut microbiome, which has a lot of benefits for our health. It gives us this armor where our body is able to deal with things. You can almost think about it as the same idea as a vaccine. By giving you this low dose of sort of mimicking a bug, your body builds up resistance to the real thing, more or less.
So we don’t have that anymore. And the message is not you know, “Just stop washing your hands,” ’cause like I said, we’re in the time of COVID. We need to wash our hands, we need to practice all these sanitary things. The message is really that going outside and getting dirty can be a really good thing. There’s a lot of researchers who study this, who make their children garden and go outside and play in the dirt because it can be so good for their system, as a whole. And even our food, we’ve lost some of the benefits because we now… All our food is washed and perfectly prepared, and it’s also totally refined. Whereas, the research says if you eat more raw vegetables, that can also help your gut microbiome ’cause there’s fiber, and you’re also usually onboarding some germs that just happen to be on a low level on the vegetables.
Brett McKay: So you went on this hunt, this misogi, then you experienced all this stuff, and you learned some things about being uncomfortable. How have you incorporated this into your regular life? Are you rucking while fasting in silence and then rolling around the mud? What are you doing?
Michael Easter: Well, no, I live in the desert, so I do all that, but I do it in just dirt, it’s just dry out here. [chuckle] No, I tend to think about this stuff as like, “What can I do across the days, weeks, months and years?” It’s not like I’m fasting every single day, but I do try and incorporate times where I go through some hunger. I do try and leave my cell phone when I go out on walks in nature, oftentimes, with a rock on my back. It’s like, “How can I add these little things back into my life that make me just… Make my days just a little bit more uncomfortable?” And then when I think about it on a longer perspective, I try and do one really hard thing, sort of this misogi idea, once a year, and spend a lot more time outdoors.
So for example, one of the guidelines of misogi is that you don’t really advertise about it, but I talked to Marcus and he was like, “Well, you’re kinda like preaching this idea that I think will help people, so you can talk to people about your misogis.” So I did one the other day where I had never run 16 miles, more than 16 miles in my life. And I went out into the desert on this trail. I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna try and run. What would be really hard for me? What’s that 50-50?” And I said, “Eh, could I run 32 miles, something like that? Yeah, I could probably run 32 miles if I really had to.” So it didn’t feel like 50-50. And I was like, “Well, could I run like more than 45?” I was like, “Eh, I don’t know if I could do more than that.” And so that was key to me where I really had this apprehension. And I went out and did it, and it was super hard, but along the way, I learned so much about myself and I returned from that being like, “Man! That was awesome!”
In the moment, you’re like, “This sucks! Why am I doing this? This is terrible. You need to quit. You definitely need to quit. You should quit right now.” But by just putting one foot in front of the other and doing that, it was like, “Oh, man! I don’t have to… If I don’t have to quit at that and I can do that, what else is possible?” We just tend to sell ourselves short, I think, so finding these ways to integrate discomfort back into your life in small ways and big ways, I think, is the key. And the book, really, is sort of a blueprint for how you do that ’cause there’s a lot of different discomforts that we’ve lost over time. And by not having those in our lives, we’re missing something vital, not only for our health and our mental health, but also for our spirit. I think a lot of this… I think there’s a lot about humans that you can’t necessarily measure in a hospital, or a doctor can’t exactly explain. But when we do stuff like this, that stuff sort of bubbles to the surface and it tells you a little bit more about how to live an interesting, memorable life.
Brett McKay: Well, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Michael Easter: So the book is called The Comfort Crisis, and it’s available, I don’t know, wherever you buy books. Find an independent store, I’d love it if you do that, if you’re interested. And then if you wanna learn more about me, in general, you can go to my website, it’s eastermichael.com. And I’m also on Instagram posting about random stuff, not too often ’cause you just heard me talking about how I try to not spend too much time on my cell phone, but I do post there, and that’s michael_easter. And it was awesome to talk to you, man. I really appreciate you having me on.
Brett McKay: Well, thank you, Michael, appreciate it. Take care. My guest today was Michael Easter. He’s the author of the book, The Comfort Crisis. It is available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, eastermichael.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/comfortcrisis where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. And if you’re looking to do hard things, looking for some structure to do hard things, check out our membership platform, The Strenuous Life. We’ve basically taken all the content we’ve talked about and written about on the Art of Manliness for the past 15 years, put some structure to it. We have badges based on hard skills like hunting, orienteering. We’ve got self-defense. We’ve got soft skills, too, personal finances, public speaking, etcetera. And we also have weekly challenges that are gonna put you outside of your comfort zone on a physical, social and mental level. So check it out, strenuouslife.co. We’ve got an enrollment opening up in June. Hope to see you there.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AoM podcast, you can do so at Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.