Our lives are safer than ever before, our environments are cleaner, and yet society continues on a quest to eliminate pain and discomfort altogether. But what risk are we putting ourselves in when we pursue a utopian ideal and choose to ignore the inherent benefits of personal challenge?
Since our first tentative steps on the African continent, 200,000 years ago, humans have undergone a constant process of adventure, adaptation and achievement. By facing and overcoming innumerable challenges — from the environment, the climate and each other — humans have advanced from subsistence hunter-gatherers to the most innovative and adaptive species on the planet.
Therefore, it’s ironic that as our lives have become safer and more comfortable, our relationship with challenge has withered. Instead of being embraced as the catalyst for innovation, evolution and progress, many have come to view pain and discomfort as the enemy. Instead of appreciating the benefits of challenge, most people now seek to eliminate it completely from their lives.
And at what cost? Multiple studies show that modern children are more insulated and supervised than ever before, ostensibly to keep them safer, but this behavior is simply creating a generation that is less resilient and more anxious. Our homes, bodies and environments have become more sterile with the ubiquitous use of antibiotic soaps and cleaners, but this sanitation is actually increasing the risk of illness from mutant “super bugs” and the occurrence of childhood allergies. An obsession with personal safety (even in an era of lower crime) has prompted an increase in petty laws, the loss of personal freedoms and, in the United States in particular, an alarming proliferation of civilian weapons.
“Seeking and overcoming personal adversity is deeply programmed into our psyche.”
Re-evaluating your approach to challenge and recognizing that discomfort is a necessary, positive element of human life can be both powerful and liberating. No matter how alien we have made our schedules and our surroundings, it is important to acknowledge that we are natural creatures — barely discernible from those ancient humans of Africa. As such, we have an inherent need to experience, explore and innovate. Seeking and overcoming personal adversity is deeply programmed into our psyche; it feeds our inherent desire to evolve and drives many of our unconscious behaviors and choices.
As human behavior expert, Dr John Demartini, explains “Challenge is natural and necessary; if you do not create challenges that you are inspired by, you will manifest other challenges in your life that are uninspiring.”
The Benefits of Challenge
Acknowledging that, as a human being, you have an inherent need to grow from, thrive on and seek out challenge can free you from a victim mentality and enable you to handle stress and discomfort more effectively. The key is to understand that, as unpleasant or disruptive as challenge may be, it also brings with it a multitude of benefits:
Challenge encourages cooperation:
It is in times of challenge that our inherent altruistic nature is revealed and stronger social bonds are formed.
There is a general consensus that, unlike other hominins, early homo sapiens survived their journey out of Africa because of their unusually cooperative behavior. When faced with challenge — hunting large animals, adapting to changing climates, exploring difficult terrain — human social groups were able to draw upon the individual strengths of its members. Inventions, resources and physical prowess were shared freely and often without any apparent reward. It is in times of challenge that our inherent altruistic nature is revealed and stronger social bonds are formed.
Swanson School is a government primary school situated in the western suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand. In 2012, as part of a university study, all playground rules were abolished at the school and the elementary-aged students have since been free to explore, experience and experiment as they choose. The results have been positive and profound. In particular, bullying has all but disappeared and the children are more cooperative and selfless. The reason? “You will see the kids trying to master a challenge in the playground, like building a tree house. They have to work together to achieve their goal and this builds a sense of teamwork and cooperation,” explains Swanson principal, Bruce McLachlan.
Challenge inspires creativity:
The proverb rings true: necessity is the mother of invention. For much of human history, innovation has been found in geographic clusters, often based in areas where the climate and other factors posed reasonable challenge. Historian Arnold Toynbee described this as the Golden Mean; where excessive challenge will crush a civilization, too little challenge will cause it to stagnate.
“Discomfort and hardship compels the mind to look for new possibilities — ones that lie beyond the confines of learned behaviors — and encourages intuitive and creative solutions.”
From the wheel of ancient Greece (helping merchants transport heavy goods) to freeze-dried food (storing astronauts’ food safely), a quick glance through history reveals the evolutionary gift hidden in every challenge. The truth is that discomfort and hardship compels the mind to look for new possibilities — ones that lie beyond the confines of learned behaviors — and encourages intuitive and creative solutions.
Challenge fuels a sense of purpose:
Injecting meaning and purpose into your daily life is imperative for your holistic wellbeing. In fact, studies in Canada have shown that people who have a sense of purpose actually live longer than those who are uninspired and unfulfilled.
The discomfort of challenge (whether yours or someone else’s) can often be a profound catalyst for action and can help instill a sense of purpose in any individual. Many of the most-admired humans in history — Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jnr, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela — are those who have confronted challenge head-on and used discomfort and discord to reveal their innate greatness; a greatness that undoubtedly lies within each of us.
Challenge leads to greater confidence:
“Studies have revealed that employees are more engaged and fulfilled when they are working toward clearly-defined goals and when they are held accountable for their performance.”
Healthy self-confidence is directly associated with an individual’s personal experiences; it arises from what they have already overcome and achieved, and what they therefore deem their capabilities to be. Of course, in order to understand the limits of one’s capabilities, they must first be challenged.
In childhood, the recent trend toward over-parenting and challenge-elimination has created serious confidence and efficacy issues in young adults. (As one study suggests “the negative effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ wellbeing were largely explained by the perceived violation of students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”) In the workplace, studies have revealed that employees are more engaged and fulfilled when they are working toward clearly-defined goals and when they are held accountable for their performance.
The inescapable fact is that challenge is a necessary ingredient of personal wellbeing. Whether in the home, the workplace or in the wider community, appreciating the positive aspects of challenge, and encouraging others to do the same, can only lead to a more fulfilled, innovative and evolved humanity.
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