“If You’re Uncomfortable, Go Outside of Your Comfort Zone.” This is the conclusion that Pninit Russo-Netzer and Geoffrey L. Cohen came to after their three-week “behavioral stretch intervention” study on 146 participants in Israel. “Behavioral stretch intervention” is their term for encouraging people to act outside of their comfort zone in order to facilitate change. Beginning with the evidence-base that people experience transformation from both adverse and positive experiences, Russo-Netzer and Cohen begin to wonder how the simple, daily challenge of trying something new could influence feelings of courage, which would in turn affect personal growth and transformation.
Russo-Netzer and Cohen theorize that by going outside of one’s comfort zone, a person may experience an increase in self-confidence, and in turn, become more resilient knowing that they have made it through uncomfortable things. This is considered a positive psychology intervention (PPI), which is defined as something “designed to increase people’s life satisfaction and flourishing.”
Their study involved recruiting people through social media. All participants lived in Israel, which is a developed Western nation; 74% identified as female and 26% identified as male; 93% identified as Jewish and 78% identified as secular.
The authors measured life-satisfaction using a questionnaire in the first week and at the end of the third week.
Intervention participants were asked during weeks two and three to do something out of their comfort zone of their own choosing and document their “experiences, thoughts, and feelings” through open responses. The control participants were asked to keep a log of their daily activities and also note any emotions they experienced.
In analyzing the data, Russo-Netzer and Cohen developed the following measurable coded categories (based on participants’ responses):
Psychological experience: courage, affirmation, happiness, stress, fear, negative emotions, effort, positive emotions, and boredom.
Why participants chose the activity: exploration, facing a fear, self-care, self-assertion, doing good, and dealing with a challenge.
What enabled them to perform the activity: external commitment, courage, having an open mind, and thinking of others.
The results were that those who had low life-satisfaction in week one and who tried something outside of their comfort zone increased their level of life-satisfaction in three weeks. Those who began with a high level of life-satisfaction and went outside of their comfort zone did not see a significant change in life-satisfaction (the authors posit that this is because they are likely already doing challenging things and have developed the self-confidence and connection that comes from that).
Intervention participants expressed a wider range of emotions than the control group. While this means that they experienced more negative emotions, fear, and stress than the control group, it also means that they experienced a higher rate of positive emotions, affirmation, and courage. Participants identified that the anticipation of stepping outside of their comfort zone was more distressing than when they did it.
Types of Activities Correlated to Life-Satisfaction
The highest levels of life-satisfaction came from activities where people were helping others, while the second highest came from participating in a social event. The activity that seemed to have the least impact on life-satisfaction was physical activity. The authors related that previous research has shown that pursuing happiness by self-centered activities does not yield an increase in life-satisfaction because they often involve excessive self-monitoring rather than a wider mindset to include the good of the whole.
The authors felt it was important for participants to select their own “out of the comfort zone” activity in order to feel safe enough to explore it.
This research is reflective of a “Western, moderately individualized culture”; therefore, more research could be done in other sociocultural contexts.
How does this relate to spiritual wellness? – My take
It was no surprise to me that people who went outside of their comfort zone by helping others and participating in social events experienced the highest levels of life-satisfaction, because these are things that foster connection. Humans are meant to be in community with one another and it is our spiritual self that calls us to altruism. Helping others is something that is in alignment with who we are as human beings at our core. You may be familiar with the Nguni-Bantu word Ubuntu in South Africa. Ubuntu roughly translates to the idea that we are all connected. Whatever impacts one, impacts the whole. When we are in community and feel like we have purpose in that community we feel fulfilled.
Thinking of people with low life satisfaction brings to mind those I have worked with who feel ashamed that they are not happy—they have the spouse, the house, the kids, the job, and yet they feel numb and unfulfilled. In order for them to thrive, it is always necessary that they pay attention to their spiritual self and address the areas of grief, forgiveness, and purpose they have avoided. Participants in this study paid attention to their spiritual selves by identifying activities they had been avoiding, by leaning into something that was difficult but worthy of their time, and by focusing on activities that led to self-care.
This study encouraged people to go outside of their comfort zones—in other words, it encouraged them to try something new or do that thing that they have been putting off because they are scared or too busy with the basic necessities of life. It makes sense to me that those with low life-satisfaction found great joy in this exercise because they were prioritizing something they valued—some explored creative endeavors by going to the opera or signing up for a sewing course, while others volunteered with special needs kids or did something good for the environment. These are all activities related to a person’s values.
Take aways for you:
1) Make time to do something new, albeit small or large, regularly.
2) Focus on things that deepen your connection with others.
3) Challenging things often seem scarier before you do them, then when you actually do them.
4) We grow through adversity and experience higher life-satisfaction from it.
Russo-Netzer, Pninit, and Geoffrey L Cohen. “‘If You’re Uncomfortable, Go Outside Your Comfort Zone’: A Novel Behavioral ‘stretch’ Intervention Supports the Well-Being of Unhappy People.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 18, no. 3 (May 2023): 394–410.