Stealing Happiness Back from Comfort

The winter I renovated my apartment was one of the coldest I remember. I couldn't stay there during the project. My sister generously let me stay in her family's house, but the basement guest room was dark and drafty and the commute from Queens was long.

The one-month renovation turned to two, then three, then four, then five. The costs overran to double. Everyone's patience wore thin. It's uncomfortable to impose on someone so much, even family, no matter how generous your host.

I taught an evening class in Brooklyn that semester. The commute home went all the way through Manhattan, often after midnight. When the express went local for track work, I would be stuck underground, stalled between stations, not knowing when we would move again.

One such ride, I felt depressed, the kind where you think, “All those people who feel happy, they aren't really happy. They just think they are. I know how life is. It's like I feel now, and that's not happy.” You know when you want to wallow in your suffering? I felt that way then: tired, cold, and in the dark. I wanted to dwell in my misery.

Except for one thing: I exercise every day when I wake up and just before sleeping. I exercise before sleeping, no matter how tired or my mood. I have for over six years—in particular, I do burpees plus stretching and some other calisthenics, which I collectively call my burpees. I don't need equipment, a gym, a trainer, or anything. They take about ten minutes.

I realized on the train that my burpees would have the same effect on me that night as every other. Getting my heart pumping, my muscles moving, and my lungs processing oxygen, they make me feel alive and happy. Every time.

You may have heard, as I have, that no medicine has proven more effective at improving moods than exercise. Exercise elevates mood, at least according to Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, the American Psychological Association, WebMD, and Time.

With all this evidence, why don't more people exercise more?

Everyone has his or her personal reasons, but a big one is that strenuous exercise makes you uncomfortable. It's easier and more comfortable not to. I was comfortable sitting on the train. I would have felt comfortable going straight to bed when I got home.

But I would have woken up unhappy. Comfort that discourages exercise is a thief of happiness.

Search the web about burpees and you'll find many people say they hate them. They're hard. People say to me, “After so many burpees, you must have gotten used to them by now. They must have gotten easier.”

On the contrary. Before every set—and six years of twice-daily sets means over 4,300 sets—I have to work hard mentally before starting. I find the mental work harder than the physical work, despite not burning nearly the calories.

Why is the mental work harder?

Because burpees are intense physical exercise, which makes you uncomfortable.

Why make myself uncomfortable?

Because as uncomfortable as I feel before every set, I've felt happy after every set. Every single set, no matter how tired before, no matter how uncomfortable, makes me feel accomplished, invigorated, exhausted, and happy.

Twice-daily exercise means that in over six years, I've never gone more than about twelve hours without making myself happy. I choose short-term discomfort, a skill I build with practice, and steal happiness back from comfort.

Joshua Spodek is an Adjunct Professor at NYU, leadership coach and workshop leader for Columbia Business School, columnist for Inc., founder of Spodek Academy, and author of Leadership Step by Step (launching February 2017). He has visited North Korea twice, swam across the Hudson River, and has done burpees every day for six years and counting. He lives in Greenwich Village and blogs daily at www.joshuaspodek.com.