Comfortably Miserable

“Comfortably Miserable”

I was surprised I had never heard this term before. It came up in a conversation as I was sitting on the deck of a vacation home overlooking the ocean on a late summer evening. I’ve always enjoyed the beach communities in southern New Jersey (no, not that “Jersey Shore”), but for some reason this time was different. It was better. Maybe it was because it was the first time I was at the shore as a grandfather, and my youngest granddaughter’s smile and laughter were brighter than the August sun. I held her, and envisioned doing the same thing with all my grandchildren — the two oldest twins and those yet to arrive.

Driving home from this amazing weekend, the load of daily life increasingly weighed on me with each mile I put between me and the coast. This trip had been spontaneous, unplanned, and my wife and I were fortunate to be able to do it. But as soon as we got in the house, I was back on the computer, checking emails, getting caught up on Facebook, seemingly falling back into my comfortably miserable pattern. Notice I said, “seemingly.”

According to The Business Times, “Being comfortably miserable is more than just a mid-career slump. It is not simply a lack of motivation or the feeling of being stuck in a rut – it is a paralyzing need to maintain the status quo, but dreading every minute of it.”[1]

Comfortably misery is when you are miserable but you are used to it,” says Dan Johnston, PhD, a clinical psychologist and creator of the Awakenings Web Site which provides “Lessons for Living” and common-sense information to make life go better. “You know the limits and bounds of this misery. You know that you can tolerate a situation this bad because you do it every day. The problem is that it is scary to try and get out of comfortable misery. You could make a change but what would happen? True – things could get better? But, they could get worse. If it got worse could you stand it? You could actually create something more miserable. You might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”

Johnston says this is exactly the type of reasoning that holds us back and keeps us stuck.

“You are miserable but not miserable enough to change,” he says. “How miserable do you have to get? You can wait until it becomes a crisis and you are impelled to act. But, this isn’t the best way to change. It is better to take responsibility and plan your action. Look around. What are your choices? What can you do? Be realistic. Anticipate what might go wrong and be prepared for it. Acknowledge that you might be somewhat more uncomfortable as you go through the change process but be optimistic and expect that things will improve.”[2]

By these definitions, I’ve been “comfortably miserable” for decades. I’ve worked multiple jobs, trading time for money, to maintain my own status quo while trying to provide for my family. I ignored planning for retirement (“I need to pay for today! I’ll get to tomorrow…tomorrow!”), and major purchases and investments (such as a car I actually wanted rather than needed, or my own vacation home down the shore) remained dreams for my lottery winnings (“somebody has to win!”).

I’m from the old school, and was taught that going to college to create a career was the way to be successful. So I did that. In fact, I went to five colleges and worked in seven careers, but I don’t consider myself successful. What they never taught me in school was that as an employee, you’re at the mercy of the company. If they shut down, you’re out of a job, and it doesn’t matter how good of an employee you were. Company’s reorganizing and you don’t fit in? They’ll tell you they’re sorry and it’s nothing personal…it’s just business. They tell you there’s no money for raises (after the executives all get their bonuses), or worse, they dangle a “raise” to keep you satiated. But the raise is typically barely enough (if you’re lucky) to cover the increase in the cost of living (but not the rise in health care costs!).

Why weren’t classes about owning a business and entrepreneurship mandatory, even in high school?

There’s a line in the movie Eight Men Out, the story of the disgraced Chicago White Sox baseball players who, unhappy with their salaries, sought quick and easy money by throwing the World Series:

“You know what you feed a (hungry) horse in the morning if you want a day’s work out of him? Just enough so he knows he’s hungry.”

Inevitably, I ran out of hours to trade for dollars, but my cost of living continues to increase. This has led me to becoming “un-comfortably” miserable — or what Johnston says, “becomes a crisis and you are impelled to act” — and I’ve begun to look for additional/better ways to meet and exceed my needs.

And there are a ba-zillion ways out there.

When we’re comfortable we fear change and the unknown, and that fear can make us deaf, dumb and blind to opportunities. When we’re uncomfortable (aka, “tired,” “fed up,” “desperate”), we see things differently because we have to.

In future blogs I’ll share what I find. Whether you agree with it or not, well, only you can decide. Your comfort level will determine what you will and won’t listen to with an open mind.

Talk to you soon.

[1] http://www.businesstimes.com.sg/opinion/cubicle-files/are-you-comfortably-miserable-at-work

[2] http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/johnston.html

 

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