The Necessity And Beauty Of Challenges

Every animal on the planet is almost constantly subjected to the demand of the environment. For survival, animals need to be active most of their day. Every activity serves one of three purposes: gathering food for energy, producing offspring, and avoiding being killed. This puts tremendous pressure on them and they need to be efficient, healthy and strong, otherwise, they do not survive.

Cold-Water Swimming
Cold-Water Swimming: A Way Of Deliberate Challenge

Humans in the western world, on the other hand, have reached a standard of living that is too comfortable. And this is very counter-intuitive, as you may actually have the feeling that your life is hard and you feel your work is too much or too challenging. But here is why that is the case and why it is problematic:

We are happier with easier lives. How could that be bad?

We actually feel less happy. When we do not have to struggle with real meaningful survival-based challenges, we seek for happiness in pleasurable activities. This behavior leads to hedonic behavior and the search for ever-greater stimulation. It is the hedonic treadmill, where we have to engage in ever more pleasurable activities to feel the same amount of satisfaction. At the same time, our capacity to deal with challenges decreases and we become less mentally resilient. 

But I can buy a lot of pleasure and entertainment, that is cool! How could that ever be bad?

Pleasure without effort leads to negative side-effects, like desensitizing us to the effects of dopamine. Only when we have to struggle in order to obtain something pleasurable are we in balance from a neurological point of view. 

But hard work sucks, it feels bad and I am happy to life without it. It is a good thing we have eliminated a lot of had labor. This is certainly a good thing. How could it not be?
In the environment, which we have created for ourselves, the struggle and effort we have to exert is too small for the amount of pleasure we can receive. It is out of balance, and so are our neuro-chemicals. We can easily become addicted to activities that yield high amounts of dopamine release for very little effort, like food, porn, drugs, alcohol, social media and other sedentary entertainment. 

I have worked hard to buy all of this entertainment and I really enjoy playing video games or watching movies, this is great. 
Over time, we will perceive less and less activities to be meaningful and enjoyable, because we become accustomed to high pleasure activities that require low amounts of mental or physical effort.

Our lives are comfortable. We all like it and it's really cool what we can do, this certainly must be good long-term! 
When life gets too comfortable, there is not enough evolutionary pressure. Evolutionary pressure is the beautifully brutal mechanism by which all life forms were shaped into what they are today, including us humans. But without is, also non-optimal DNA can be given to the next generation. Over many generations, this will weaken the gen-pool, illnesses will be more common and we will be less resilient and be even more dependant on our lifestyles. More children will be born with less than optimal health. 

There is no good without the bad, the Yin and Yang. 

As we have created this very comfortable environment, we are now in a situation where we have to actively seek out challenges in order to stay optimally healthy. The benefits of subjecting oneself to self-imposed challenges are:
  • Resensitization to the effect of dopamine
  • Greater pleasure can be derived from just being, without any special stimulation or activity
  • Mindfulness becomes easier, as we are happy in our natural state. 
  • We can overcome challenges more easily because we accustom ourselves to difficult and painful experiences on a regular basis. 
  • Strenuous activities become more meaningful and pleasurable again
  • We feel that we are in balance because our pleasurable experiences don't leave us in a void afterwards, that needs to be filled again with another dopamine hit.
  • Meditation and present awareness become enjoyable.
  • A minimalistic lifestyle becomes natural and the need for material possessions is lower. 
  • Overall greater life enjoyment as we raise our baseline level of happiness over time. 
  • A sense of meaning of our existence can emerge more easily. 

Much of this knowledge is already widely implemented by many intelligent people. They work on themselves, their career, do sport and maintain a healthy diet. But the default mode of our psyche is to revert to complacency and search for the easiest solution. In our evolutionary history this worked well, because we had no really easy way out. But today it can backfire and we have to take challenging ourselves into our own hands and consciously provide it and often take the hardest route because it is still much too easy compared to what our evolutionary ancestors had to deal with and our psyche evolved and thrived in.