On stress and comfort

Many people report they're feeling depressed during the pandemic. The gyms are closed so exercise options are limited. You don't get to see people as much. The routines are all different.

Many people report they're feeling depressed during the pandemic. The gyms are closed so exercise options are limited. You don't get to see people as much. The routines are all different— you might have lost touch with friends, there are no serendipitous conversations at work, you can't go out to a restaurant or to see a movie. That would put anybody in low spirits.

But not me. I'm extremely well adapted to the pandemic. I can busy myself with reading, studying or programming and almost never get bored. Chatting over text feels as real to me as meeting in person. In many ways text is better— I can multitask, talk to different groups of friends, be in my pajamas. I don't miss going out. Restaurants are filled with annoyances like noise and waiting for the check. The food delivery experience feels strictly better. I don't have to sit in traffic or go to events I never liked. The new routine has made me surprisingly happy.

Because I spend so much time at home I made everything cozy. I'm surrounded by my favorite books. I get the exact amount and the type of light I need (which is dim and incandescent orange). I get more and better sleep, the kitchen is stocked with the food I like, the pajamas are soft. I can take baths in the middle of the day! There is good coffee. People get to control only some aspects of our environment, but now my home is the environment. I get to control all of it. I can't remember a time when I was as comfortable.

Comfort begets comfort. I've always said no to unnecessary errands, but the pandemic made it clear how much further that can go. If I was too conservative saying no before, could I be too conservative saying it now? I tested it, and it turned out that I was. For example, when people asked for Zoom I tried saying "let's work it out over text". And that turned out to be enough! I've always preferred conversations to meetings, and text feels far more conversational than Zoom. Now people know to reach me via text. Over the last six months I've eliminated nearly everything I don't want to do.

One outcome of this experiment is tranquility. The other is that I get more done than ever. I read, write, study, code and talk to people more than I did before. I can't remember the last time I sat down and read for two uninterrupted hours before the pandemic. Now I do it regularly. The combination of extra time, fewer interruptions, and less frustration feels like I'm operating at a lower frequency. This frequency feels optimal for productivity. The frequency prior to the pandemic was far too high.

But there are negative side effects to comfort. I find myself saying no where I should be saying yes. Less physical movement means it's harder to keep a healthy weight. Lack of strenuous exercise makes me downright lazy— I notice myself resisting anything that would cause even small amounts of stress. I don't lose a sense of urgency, but I do find it harder to convince myself to perform entire classes of work. None of this makes me unhappy. My limbic system is ok with it, but the rational part of my brain knows these effects aren't good for me. They remind me of an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran:

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.
Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.
It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh.
It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.
Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed.
Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.

So it isn't enough to be comfortable. Comfort needs to be balanced with stress. What type of stress is the right stress? I'm still experimenting, but I have early results. This is N=1 and I don't know if the conclusions generalize. YMMV.

High intensity interval training (HIIT) always lifts my mood, gives me more energy, and makes it much easier to take on the day or to handle bad news. The stock market tanking is bad, but not nearly as bad if you did twenty minutes of burpees. This effect is stronger after doing martial arts. I don't know yet if it's because the intensity is higher and longer, or because there is a social component. I noticed I don't get any of these effects after long slow runs, or after lifting heavy weights. I am not sure why.

Cold water has roughly the same psychological effects on me as HIIT. The effects plateau after about fifteen seconds under a cold shower. It works much better if the head and face are under the stream. There is effect without that, but it's more limited. I haven't looked at the data and I don't know if this is safe to do consistently. People make all sorts of pseudoscientific claims about health benefits of cold water— I'm not doing that; I just know it has an effect on my psychology.

SMART goals have incredibly powerful effects, but only with an additional property— I have to care about the goal. If I have to ship a feature by Monday and I care about the product, I will be focused and excited all through the weekend. It works even better if I know other people are depending on me. But the inverse, if people depend on me but I don't care about the goal, is destructive stress. Those situations make me miserable beyond belief.

Sleep matters a lot, and it's surprisingly fussy. About 8.5 hours is optimal. Less than 8 or more than 9 leaves me grumpy for the rest of the day.

I found that contrary to conventional wisdom diet quality makes no difference. I can eat pizzas all day or healthy gourmet meals— if I get the calories in it doesn't matter. On the other hand my weight does matter. About 165lbs (the uppermost point of my healthy BMI) is optimal. Any less and I start feeling weak. More than 175lbs and my mood starts to suffer. Meditation, supplements, and proximity to nature also don't matter.

I have a much longer list of how different conditions affect me, but from talking to friends I know these mappings are idiosyncratic. The meta argument is that tinkering with the right and wrong types of comfort and stress can make a dramatic difference on your productivity and subjective experience. It doesn't even require much work! You have to pay attention to how your psychology responds to situations and be willing to make changes. After a while it becomes automatic. And since your life situation and priorities change with time, the tinkering process never ends.