Optimal Anxiety

Notable showman P.T. Barnum once defined comfort as the enemy of progress, and, with the exception of math, everything in our lives exists to make it more comfortable. However, we spend so much time being content with our positions in life, we fear to venture out of our comfort zones. So much, that we are failing to reach our full potential. Nonetheless, we can all prevent this by realizing that a dose a discomfort in our lives is not an enemy but a tool to help us improve.

It is undeniable that we are stuck in our comfort zones. Andy Molinsky, professor of Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University, argues in his book, Reach, published on Jan. 24, 2017, that many people will rationalize not leaving their comfort zone even when the occasion arises. Molinsky claims that, “We unconsciously structure our lives to avoid the moments and tasks that scare us.” From calling in sick so we don’t have to present in class, to driving around the block to find a spot where we don’t have to parallel park, we all have done this before. For these tasks that we intentionally avoid, we justify our behavior by saying it’s not the right time or it’s not useful to us; however, by avoiding the task, we prevent ourselves from improvement.

Furthermore, numerous aspects of our everyday lives are designed to keep us in our comfort zone. This is exemplified in something as simple as crossing the street. Reporter Jacobo Prisco describes in an article for CNN News, that most crosswalk buttons serve no purpose. Of the over 1,000 buttons in New York City, only about 100 of them actually function; the majority are on an automatic timer. A similar phenomenon occurs in elevator close door buttons and office thermostats.

Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen Langer argues that these buttons, in a way, do work. She claims, “They have a psychological effect. Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation.” These products reinforce our own beliefs by giving us the illusion of control and satiates our need to feel comfortable, but they also prevent us from experiencing the feeling of unpredictability. MIT senior lecturer Peter Senge describes in his essay “The Dance of Change”, we remain in our comfort zones because things are controllable, comfortable, and confident.” Uncertainty forces us out, therefore, people will avoid it at all costs. We are labeling uncertainty and discomfort as the enemy to our lives when truly, it’s the one thing that allows us to progress and expand our knowledge.

As described by the Allina Health organization, being uncomfortable and stressed has a major stigma that surrounds it. It’s universally labeled as a bad thing, and few want to admit to stress for the belief that they will be judged and stereotyped. We feel that anxious feelings are unusual, however, discomfort and stress are not uncommon. In fact, only one in every seven Americans reports living stress-free according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to The American Psychological Association, 77% of people regularly have feelings of stress and anxiety. This stress isn’t entirely bad. Endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye describes in his paper, The Birth of Stress,” that stress is a body’s natural response to stimuli, pleasant or unpleasant. Most people attach a negative connotation to it because they only associate it with an extreme level.

While high levels of stress are dangerous and should not be ignored, we cannot associate all discomfort as being that severe. Professor of psychology at Columbia University Dr. Modupe Akinola describes in her paper “The Dark Side of Creativity,” published on Oct. 2, 2008, that people with higher levels of hormones directly related to stress have more creativity than those who have low levels. This creativity is not just artistic but also encompasses problem-solving and critical thinking. However, in order for this to occur, we must step out of our comfort zones and feel a little anxious. But repeatedly, at the first twinge of anxiety, we automatically exit a situation and return to a more comfortable one. This phenomenon is causing us to be less proactive, less creative, and less innovative.

While stress may seem like the enemy, we can all learn from it. When an optimal level of anxiety is reached, we are able to perform at our fullest potential. Seeing discomfort as a way to improve instead of something to avoid will allow everyone to perform better in an academic and professional setting. The challenge lies in finding the optimal level of anxiety for yourself.