Rock Climbing, or the Difference between Happy and Comfortable

It has come to my attention that human beings tend to think “happy” and “comfortable” are synonyms.

At least, the human being I know best (myself) has thought so in the past, and judging by the actions of other humans I know, I’m not alone. There’s just one problem: we’re wrong.

Before we get too far, let’s be clear on two things:

  1. By “happy,” I mean a life of “enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction, or joy,” to borrow a definition from Wordnik.
  2. By “comfortable,” I’m talking about a life that is habitual, non-challenging, and generally easygoing.

Now technically, there are times when a life filled with happiness is also comfortable. If I have a habit of brushing my teeth twice a day, then I’ll be comfortable in my brushing habit, and happy when my dentist tells me I have no cavities. Win/Win!

Unfortunately, I’ve sometimes acted or thought as though the two words always mean the same thing. We all do it:

“I’m comfortable in my current job, so it must be making me happy.”

“My [insert your favorite harmful habit] is comfortable for me, so it must make me happy.”

“I have a habit of playing Farmville for an hour each day, so it must make me happy.”

Rock climbing teaches the difference between comfortable and happy. As a Boy Scout, I learned how to rock climb from an awesome Scouting leader and friend. He taught me how to use handholds, how to tie the different knots, and how to not die (always a good skill). He also taught me one more thing:

Challenge your comfort level if you want to be a happy climber.

Often, I’d reach what I thought was my limit. I’d be soaked in sweat, even—no, especially—my fingers would be sweating. My muscles would ache, and my legs would be shaking from exertion. So, I’d call down, “Falling,” the signal to lower a climber to the ground. And then, my scout leader would ask,

“Are you sure?”

Well, drat, when he asked me that, I’d try again. Sometimes I’d make it higher, sometimes I’d simply drip another gallon of perspiration, but always I felt better about myself. I’d feel happy.

That’s how life works. Now, don’t assume I’m perfect at challenging myself or not stagnating in comfortableness. I’m still working on it, and sometimes life is so crazy that being comfortable is all I can handle! What gives me real, lasting joy, however, isn’t the comfortable moments. It’s the moments that cost blood, sweat, and tears.

Looking into my best friend’s eyes and hearing the words, “you may kiss the bride,” after two years of awkward dates (just ask my wife).

Feeling your son’s tired head finally fall onto your shoulder, trusting you implicitly, after hours of carrying him.

Successfully completing a college course that took days away from my life in studying, writing, editing, rewriting, starting my paper over—you get the idea!

So, the next time you’re feeling complacent in being comfortable, and you’re about to yell “Falling…”

Are you sure?