What is voluntary discomfort?

Voluntary discomfort sounds like something any sane person would try to avoid. After all, who in their right mind would deliberately seek out ways to inject discomfort into their lives?

It’s a good question, and hopefully, by the end of this, it won’t seem as crazy as it first appears.

The core of the practice is simply putting ourselves in situations that challenge our comfort zone, challenge our physical comfort, or even challenge us emotionally.

This kind of voluntary discomfort was practiced by the ancient Stoic philosophers. It was a way for them to fortify themselves against discomfort that was not voluntary—the things that were thrust upon them by life and chance.

The logic here is similar to that of a workout regimen. Here’s why:

If we go to the gym a few times a week to strength train, when we have to pick things up in real life, they don’t seem that heavy. I’m sure we’ve all moved house, and some of those packing boxes made us wish we’d done a few more squats in the gym.

Voluntary discomfort does the same thing, but for discomfort (who’d have guessed?).

If we take a cold shower a few times a week, the cold doesn’t bother us as much. If we run or workout, then physical strain loses a lot of its discomfort. If we deliberately find ways to speak in public, the nerves and emotional discomfort will lessen.

This is voluntary discomfort in a nutshell, but there is a lot more that it can do for us and a lot more context, which I’ll get into below.

…we should voluntarily set aside a few days to subsist with little food, coarse clothing & no material comforts. We should prepare for adversity, amidst the favours of fortune. Such practices of endurance will help us realise we can make do with very little. Vagaries of fortune won’t effect us.

– Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter xviii

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voluntary discomfort and stoicism

If you’ve read any of the information I’ve written here before, you’ll know that I’m a huge advocate for Stoic philosophy and what it can do for the quality of our day-to-day lives.

To the Stoics, deliberate discomfort is important for two reasons:

  1. It protects us from becoming too soft and mentally fragile to real discomfort.

  2. It helps us develop a gratitude for the things in life that bring us comfort.

The practice of voluntary discomfort not only pairs nicely with this philosophy (and we’ll see why in a moment), but it was specifically practiced by some of the more famous philosophers of the past.

Seneca the Younger:

The Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca made an effort to practice voluntary discomfort in his day-to-day life.

Despite him being one of the wealthiest men of the time (we’re talking Jeff Bezos levels of rich), he does have the self-awareness to know what indulgence can do to a person.

His practice covers:

  • Living on meager meals of basic foods

  • Wearing rough clothing.

  • Swimming in cold water

He believed that by periodically experiencing the lifestyle of the less fortunate, he not only developed empathy but also fortified himself against potential future losses.

In his famous letters, he wrote many times to his friend Lucilius about the benefits of a deliberate and modest diet.

He also wrote about the pitfalls of being led by your belly; this includes both the negative impact it has on the body and the slavish nature of the belly-controlled mind.

He wrote:

It is disagreeable, you say, to abstain from the pleasures of the customary diet. Such abstinence is, I grant, difficult at first. But in course of time the desire for that diet will begin to languish; the incentives to our unnatural wants failing, the stomach, at first rebellious, will after a time feel an aversion for what formerly it eagerly coveted. The desire dies of itself, and it is no severe loss to be without those things that you have ceased to long for. Add to this that there is no disease, no pain, which is not certainly intermitted or relieved, or cured altogether. Moreover it is possible for you to be on your guard against a threatened return of the disease, and to oppose remedies if it comes upon you.

Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter xxviii

In letter 18, he also wrote the following, explaining to Lucilius that there is more value in restraint than indulgence:

How should we indulge ourselves during festivities? With abandon? Or, perhaps moderately? No. It is better to abstain from pleasures just when everyone else is indulging in them. It is an opportunity to take charge of one’s mind, ordering it away from dissipation, and test its own strength. This is a bolder course.

Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter xviii

Marcus Aurelius:

Another Stoic philosopher who practiced voluntary discomfort was none other than the Emperor of Rome himself, Marcus Aurelius.

Despite his power and wealth, much like Seneca, Aurelius saw the power in shunning too much luxury and embracing something a little more humble

His practice included:

  1. Sleeping on a rough military bed, or the floor, instead of his large and comfortable palace bed

  2. Physical exercise (wrestling and boxing)

This was likely an influence of his philosophy teacher, Diognetus.

In Frank McLynn’s book, Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor, he writes that Aurelius, under instruction from Diognetus, adopted the rough Greek robes of the philosopher and slept on the ground until his mother convinced him to sleep in a proper bed.

Although this guidance was given to him as a young man, he carried the habits with him into later life.

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The Benefits of Voluntary Discomfort

Some people might do this for the fun of it, but most people practice voluntary discomfort because of the benefits we feel in our body and our mentality.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Building resilience through raising our tolerance to discomfort

  • Developing gratitude for the comforts we have

  • Simplifying life by learning that we don’t need some of the comforts we have

  • Building confidence and learning we can be OK despite the discomfort

  • Increased discipline

How Do You Use Voluntary Discomfort?

By now, you probably already have an idea of how you can implement voluntary discomfort into your own life or compliment a daily stoic practice.

The Stoics have given us some good guidance on the topic; we know what the benefits are, and we can start to look at our own lives to figure out where we can implement some of the thing’s we’ve spoken about.

It’s an easy thing to do in principle; it just requires a little discipline.

Here are some examples of what a modern voluntary discomfort practice might include:

  • Eating plain or basic foods

  • Eating food in moderation

  • Intermittent fasting

  • Cold Showers

  • Walking in bad weather without warm clothing

  • Sleeping on the floor or a place less comfortable than your bed

  • Having your heating on low in the winter

  • Exercise

You don’t have to do these things every day, but choosing a couple to do a few times a week is a great way to start building into the practice.

Personally I use cold showers, exercise, plain food, fasting, and a few of those 10k mud runs a year that people like to post all over their social media.

Your practice can be tailored to work for you.



And there we have it—the practice of voluntary discomfort with some added Stoic philosophy.

Hopefully I’ve kept my promise at the start of the article, and it’s clear now that sprinkling some discomfort into your life isn’t lunacy and can actually help develop a few character traits that will do us some good.

I’d like to encourage you to pick a couple of the examples we spoke about and experiment with a few to see what they can do for you.

Until next time, have a good week, and I’ll speak to you soon!

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