happiness, comfort, pleasure, contentment…

The other night I saw a video that made me think of these things, and it reminded me of a piece of journaling I did in Ecuador several years back.  I was there teaching a conservation biology class in the paramo, the high elevation grasslands in the Andes. Our living quarters were very far from what most Americans would consider comfortable, though they were comfortable by the standards of that area.

On Comfort
Fifteen, November 2003

Cold.  It’s cold up here.  Off in the distance I can hear an owl, or at least I think it’s an owl.  Whatever it is it’s making a long wavering call, like the quavering sound of a cold person’s voice.  Maybe it’s a cold owl.

I’m sitting in bed wearing gloves, socks, long underwear and a hat, writing by the light of three candles and a dying headlamp.  The walls of our cabin are made of thatched paramo grass with plenty of holes big enough to let in a breeze strong enough to blow out a candle or flip the pages of my notebook.  Not exactly most people’s idea of comfort, especially for a skinny guy like me who retains heat about as well as a nudist in a snowstorm.

But what is comfort anyway?  Why do we focus so much attention on comfort?  Up here in the Andes comfort is not the same thing that we seek at home.  At home in the states, comfort would be a house at the perfect temperature for sleeping, a meal cooked with ingredients from around the world, a cat on the lap.

Here in the paramo, comfort is laying down after two hours hiking, having clean underwear and fleece socks, raiding a dwindling chocolate stash.  But even some of these comforts are beyond the reach of most of the people that live here.  For the alpaca herder over the hill, comfort is sitting down with a cup of coffee-flavored sugar water around an open-pit fire in the middle of a soot-darkened, dirt floored kitchen.  And what is comfort for the alpaca that he herds?  Perhaps comfort for them is sitting on a particularly spongy bit of turf on a dry night after a week without rain.  The alpacas’ ancestors evolved in parts of the Andes that are much drier than Ecuador.  Wet winters kill alpaca here.  I can’t imagine laying outside all night with four inches of wet fur hanging off me and the temperature dropping to near freezing.  No wonder they die.

Seeking out comfort surely has an evolutionary advantage – a warm, dry place to sleep is certainly better for survival than a sleepless night in a cold swamp.  But comfort must have its limits.  How many machines do we need to make our life easier and more comfortable?  How close to the perfect temperature do our houses have to be?  Do we always need to be surrounded by music at all hours of the day?  Do we really need to be dry for every minute of our life that we’re not swimming or bathing?

“Be careful not to confuse comfort with happiness,” I once read.  I’ve remembered that quote for a long time, but I don’t remember the source.  Up here in our paramo camp those words come back like the clouds that blow in suddenly and obscure everything from view, chilling you to the core when they come in the evening.

Morning has come now, and the mountains across from camp are floating on a sea of silver.  I’m still cold, but it just doesn’t matter.

“Be careful not to confuse comfort with happiness.” is a quote I heard years ago, and since hearing it I have always aspired to live by it and to regularly try to measure my life by it.  So the other day it was interesting to have that quote brought to my mind again when I was watching a TED talk by Matthieu Ricard, a buddhist monk who gave up molecular biology for buddhism and moved to Tibet decades ago. Matthieu Ricard has since written numerous books about happiness and started several non-profits dedicated to helping less fortunate people in the Himalayan region.  His talk is beautiful and inspiring, and it made me think of a slightly different way that you could think of that quote…

“Be careful not to confuse pleasure with happiness.”

But coming back to where I started…  one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Buddhism is its effort to remove the importance of the material world in order to achieve happiness.  Comfort is part of that material world that we are always seeking – myself included – and yet I’ve found it to be surprisingly unrelated to happiness (most of the time).   In most sects of Buddhism, after learning to disconnect from the material world,  they teach that you should go out and use that knowledge to help others.  That has clearly been Matthieu Ricard’s goal, that’s probably why I like his work.  

House of Don Jose, the main ranch hand on a llama ranch in the Ecuadorian highlands | Photo by Nelson Guda © 2019
House of Don Jose, the main ranch hand on a llama ranch in the Ecuadorian highlands | Photo by Nelson Guda © 2019