Discover the evolutionary mind and body benefits of living at the edges of your comfort zone and reconnecting with the wild.
In many ways, we’re more comfortable than ever before. But could our sheltered, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged lives actually be the leading cause of many our most urgent physical and mental health issues? In this gripping investigation, award-winning journalist Michael Easter seeks out off-the-grid visionaries, disruptive genius researchers, and mind-body conditioning trailblazers who are unlocking the life-enhancing secrets of a counterintuitive solution: discomfort.
Easter’s journey to understand our evolutionary need to be challenged takes him to meet the NBA’s top exercise scientist, who uses an ancient Japanese practice to build championship athletes; to the mystical country of Bhutan, where an Oxford economist and Buddhist leader are showing the world what death can teach us about happiness; to the outdoor lab of a young neuroscientist who’s found that nature tests our physical and mental endurance in ways that expand creativity while taming burnout and anxiety; to the remote Alaskan backcountry on a demanding thirty-three-day hunting expedition to experience the rewilding secrets of one of the last rugged places on Earth; and more.
Along the way, Easter uncovers a blueprint for leveraging the power of discomfort that will dramatically improve our health and happiness, and perhaps even help us understand what it means to be human. The Comfort Crisis is a bold call to break out of your comfort zone and explore the wild within yourself.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I'm standing on a windy tarmac in Kotzebue, Alaska, a 3,000-person village 20 miles above the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi Sea. In front of me are two airplanes. One will soon dump me deep into the Alaskan Arctic, a place that’s generally agreed to be one of the loneliest, most remote, and most hostile on earth. I’m on edge.
This impending voyage into the Arctic is one thing. But I’m also no fan of flying. Particularly when it’s in planes like these: single-engine, two-and four-seater bush craft. Picture empty Campbell’s soup cans with wings.
Donnie Vincent senses my nerves. He’s a backcountry bow-hunter and documentary filmmaker on this expedition with me. He sidles up to my shoulder, leans in, and lowers his voice. “Most of the pilots up here are whiskey-swilling cowboy mountain men. The type of guys who don’t think twice about getting into a bar fight,” he says over the freezing gusts. “But just so you know, I booked the absolute best pilot I could. Brian is Top Gun.” I nod thanks.
“I’m not telling you we’re not going to crash and die,” Donnie continues. “That is a real risk, OK? But this guy is good. So the odds that we’ll be in a plane crash are…” My edginess amplifies into existential dread as I cut him off. “OK,” I say. “Got it.”
Commercial flying is incredibly safe. The statistics say you’re infinitely more likely to die in a crash on the way to the airport than you are in the plane. But this rule does not apply to bush plane flights in Alaska.
About 100 of these flights a year end in fire and brimstone, and the FAA recently released an “unprecedented warning” to Alaskan bush plane pilots after a spike in accidents. This year has been particularly bad. Fierce weather and thick fog and wildfire smoke have been messing with visibility. Donnie tells me that Brian has a colleague named Mike who recently crashed after misreading the weather. Mike was lucky enough to walk away, but the plane had to be rebuilt.
Once Brian drops us in the Arctic backcountry, we’ll face more dangers: furious grizzlies, 1,500-pound moose, packs of flesh-craving wolves, wild-eyed wolverines, blood-addicted badgers, raging glacial rivers, violent whiteout snowstorms, subzero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, precipitous cliffs, deadly diseases with names like tularemia and hantavirus, swarming mosquitoes, swarming mice, swarming rats, the runs, the barfs, the bleeds….There might be a million ways to die in the West, but there are 2 million in the Alaskan backcountry.
Our only way out? We’ll trudge hundreds of miles across that rugged world until Brian picks us up in 33 days’ time. Along the way we’ll be searching for a mythical herd of caribou, a migrating army of 400-pound ghosts that silently roam the Arctic tundra, their gnarled, four-foot antlers emerging from the crystalline fog only to disappear when the wind shifts.
The coming five weeks are an all-in proposition. Unlike, say, hiking the Pacific Crest or the Appalachian Trail, deep in the Alaskan backcountry you can’t decide you’re too cold and hungry and wander a couple miles off-trail to a highway where you can Uber to the nearest diner for a hot cup of coffee and a stack of flapjacks. There are few, if any, trails. And the closest road, town, point of cell reception, and hospital can be hundreds of miles away. Hell, even death may not be a way out. My insurance policy, unfortunately, does not offer “remotely located corpse recovery” coverage.
None of this sounds anything like my safe, comfortable life at home. And that’s the point. Most people today rarely step outside their comfort zones. We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged, safety-netted lives. And it’s limiting the degree to which we experience our “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver put it.
But a radical new body of evidence shows that people are at their best—physically harder, mentally tougher, and spiritually sounder—after experiencing the same discomforts our early ancestors were exposed to every day. Scientists are finding that certain discomforts protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, and even more fundamental issues like feeling a lack of meaning and purpose.
There are plenty of, let’s say, less committed ways to gain the benefits of discomfort. Stuff a person could easily fold into their daily life to improve their mind, body, and spirit. But this trip is at the extreme end of a prescription that researchers across disciplines say we should make a part of our lives. It’s part rewilding, part rewiring. And its benefits are all-encompassing.
Brian, Donnie, William Altman, who is Donnie’s lifelong cinematographer, and I are outside the Conex shipping container that acts as Ram Aviation’s base of operations at Kotzebue’s local airport. We’re all organizing gear and trying to keep our faces out of the ballistic wind, which is shuttling more salty fog from the sea across the land and into the hazy gray mountains. “Let’s load up and go before that fog gets worse,” says Brian.
Donnie used to spend six months at a time in the Alaskan backcountry as a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He lived out of a yellow North Face tent that he describes as a “big yellow gumdrop.” He’s since researched, hunted, and filmed in some of the most extreme and remote locations on earth. The guy one summer, no kidding, lived among a pack of wolves as he studied salmon on the Tuluksak River in the Yukon delta.
William has been with Donnie on nearly every hunt and is a rare breed of twenty-something who parties like it’s 1899. He spent most of the last decade in an Internet-and running-water-free, eight-foot-by-eight-foot cabin in the Maine backwoods. The kid primarily lives on food he hunts, raises, and grows himself.
The accompaniment of these guys eases my apprehension. But only sort of. Because the thing about nature is that it’s unpredictable and unforgiving. It doesn’t care about your experience and what happened the last time you visited it. Nature can always throw rougher stuff at you. Meaner animals, taller cliffs, lower temperatures, wider rivers, and more snow, rain, wind, and sleet.
Donnie and William are often reminded of this harrowing reality. They once ran out of food and nearly starved and froze when whiteout storms caused their pickup plane to arrive four days late. Another time they had to shoot a charging locomotive-size grizzly that would have rearranged their internal organs. By dumb luck the shot ricocheted off the bear’s skull, knocking him out cold.
I grab my 80-pound backpack, which carries most everything I’ll need to survive over the next month. Layers of clothing, food, emergency medical kit, etc. Brian stops me as I’m lugging the bag over to his plane.
“You and William are in that one,” he says, pointing to a freshly painted green-and-gold four-seater Cessna. We muscle our packs into the plane’s hull, and I step up into its passenger door and contort myself into its backseat. My knees are jammed up into my throat back here.Donnie and Brian hop into the other plane. It circles the runway and takes off toward the fog as William and I sit waiting in the Cessna. And here comes our pilot. He’s young, with a ball cap over a high and tight haircut. Aviator sunglasses. He struts up and slithers into the pilot’s seat. Reaches out a gloved hand for a shake.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m your pilot, Mike.”
William peers back at me with a twisted grin. Wait, I think, is this the same Mike that crashed his plane? The propeller kicks, stoking decibels that drown out my inner scream.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Rule 1: Make it really hard. Rule 2: Don't die.
1 33 Days 3
2 35, 55, or 75 8
3 0.004 Percent 13
4 800 Faces 20
5 20 Yards 23
6 50/50 31
7 50. 70. Or 90. 52
8 150 People 65
9 101 Miles 72
10 <70 Miles an Hour 81
Part 2 Rediscover boredom. Ideally outside. For minutes, hours, and days.
11 11 Hours, 6 Minutes 89
12 20 Minutes, 5 Hours, 3 Days 109
13 12 Places 125
Part 3 Feel hunger
14 -4,000 Calories 135
15 12 to 16 Hours
Part 4 Think about your death every day.
16 3 Good Legs 175
17 12/31, 11:59:33 p.m. 183
18 20 Minutes, 11 Seconds 204
Part 5 Carry the load
19 100+ Pounds 215
20 ≤50 Pounds 229
21 80 Percent 252
Epilogue: 81.2 Years 261
Author's Note 285