Michael Easter on the Comfort Crisis
Jul 19 2021

Comfort-Crisis-198x300.jpg Journalist and author Michael Easter talks about his book The Comfort Crisis with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Easter thinks modern life is too easy, too comfortable. To be healthy, he says, we need to move out of our comfort zones and every once in a while try to do something, especially something physically demanding, that we didn't think was possible. Easter discusses rising levels of anxiety and depression in the West and why taking on challenges can be part of the solution.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

Floccina
Jul 19 2021 at 11:45am

In the book ”Your Money or Your Life, Vicki” Robin and Joe Dominguez, they claim

“For the majority of human history, humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups. But hunting and gathering isn’t as time-consuming as you’d think.”

“Modern-day hunter-gatherers average just 15 hours of work per week, far below our “normal” 40. They often work for two days, then take two days off, with work, family time, and leisure blending together. This shows that we need about three hours of work per day for basic survival.”

Also I have watch TV documentaries where the hunter gatherers seem like to get high and spend quite a bit of time high.

Is that wrong? Is it counter to some of our guests claims?

Martin Dertz
Jul 19 2021 at 1:03pm

At ~52 min Michael says

At the end of your life, I don’t people are gonna be on their deathbed and be like, “man, I’m so glad that I watched season 7 of Billions multiple times. That was just great”… You’re gonna name these really new moments that often have their challenges.

It reminds me of an excellent line from Rick Reilly’s essay “Funny You Should Ask“:

None of us are going to find ourselves on our deathbeds saying, ‘Dang, I wish I’d spent more time on the Hibbings account.’ We’re
going to say, ‘That scar? I got that scar stealing a home run from Consolidated Plumbers!’

Nick ronalds
Jul 20 2021 at 5:44pm

I’m intuitively sympathetic to Easter’s argument. For those of us in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries, life is pretty good, perhaps too good. But isn’t there selection bias at play in his argument? He says the emotional rewards of succeeding in a hard project are great, if the chance of success is truly iffy–say, 50%. Well, if we take him at his word and the chances of success are 50%, do we need to hear from the 50% who fail at these projects? How do they feel, and what does it do for their emotional and spiritual well-being? Do they spend the rest of their days in the slough of despond? Or perhaps we grow from failure?

Andy McGill
Jul 22 2021 at 12:07pm

It is interesting that many consider access to the internet and international instantaneous phone calls a “human right”, while obviously it was unavailable to even the Kings and Billionionaires of even the recent past, much less 99.99% of humankind.

Keivan MK
Jul 21 2021 at 8:28am

I find a 50% chance of success too low. Of course, the emotional rewards (conditions on achieving success) could be high, but your push-out-of-comfort-zone portfolio must also include challenges with better odds of success. There is a lovely talk (available on YouTube) by Professor Dorit Aharonov in which she explains an approach she attributes to Moshe Feldenkreis for expanding your comfort zone. I have found it very useful and often recommend it to my students too.

Frank Tatom
Jul 21 2021 at 8:44am

My father was in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, and he felt hunting with high-powered rifles should be illegal because it is not humane (having been with sentient beings in the throes of death who had been shot by high-powered rifles). He also did not believe one was “hunting” in any sense by shooting an animal with a rifle from hundreds of yards away because the animal had no awareness of danger or chance to evade being killed. He believed it was killing, not hunting.

Which brings me to this thought: A book challenging the notion of comfort in our daily lives involved an end goal that was done in a comfortable way, i.e., a “hunt” that did not require challenging the animal in any sense, or even getting near the animal. Thus, the primary, or entire, physical discomfort was external to hunting, and the same physical discomfort could have been experienced without hunting at all. And any emotional discomfort could have been avoided by not killing a caribou.

I also think it is somewhat unintellectual to require a negative experience to have a positive emotion. Gratefulness does not require a uncomfortable experience, or deprivation, for a reasonably intelligent person who can objectively view their situation.

I will read the book but the content of the podcast makes me wonder if the author was more interested in some form of manly cred for killing an animal than than in the discomfort he endured to do that. And, he’d have had no book without the killing, so there’s that motivation, as well.

JLK
Jul 21 2021 at 12:02pm

I am with you. I listened to that and thought, “Boy am I not sympathetic to some bro who needed to jetset to the arctic and shoot a living creature in order to have some sort of moral revelation about his role in food chain.” What a lovely coincidence that the very hard thing he chose to do happened to be so glamorous, so expensive, so exclusive, and so stereotypically perfect for looking cool to other men.

Jono
Jul 21 2021 at 1:01pm

As an Econtalk listener from rural Wyoming, it was great to hear content discussed that is such an integral part of our local culture.  Hunting can be a powerful tradition, and is often misunderstood by large swathes of a modern, urbanized population.  Ethics, in particular, is often at the root of such misunderstandings.  Even local hunters pride themselves as being more ethical than other hunters (e.g. using the right equipment, taking the right animals, taking shots at the right time, taking enough meat, field dressing properly, having the right motivations, etc., etc.).

One thing  Michael Easter captures in this episode is the nature of the emotions that hunters can experience.  Some odd combination of feeling alive/regret/success/sadness has occurred in my own experience and has been related to me by other hunters who’ve participated in the taking of dozens if not hundreds of animals over the years.  What is especially noteworthy in Easter’s description is how quickly these emotions can change once tasked with field dressing an animal.  It’s hard to explain and I want to avoid trivializing what’s at stake, but once the process of field dressing starts, your brain/emotions move from the death of a living animal to the cutting up of meat.  And this isn’t as profane as it sounds.  Because, in a way, you’re still showing respect to the life that was taken by ensuring that it’s body (meat, hide, etc.) doesn’t go to waste by properly and promptly processing it in the field.  Sounds weird I’m sure, but I think Easter’s description captures this experience well.

All in all, I found this episode to be a great addition to the widening assortment of voices and stories in the Econtalk library.  Hunting was once a much more significant part of our culture than it is today thanks to a number of factors (urbanization, developments in food processing/distribution, etc.), and, as a result, it is easily—and often—misunderstood, or at least caricatured, by the forms that many of its portrayals take.

Andy McGill
Jul 22 2021 at 1:30am

Very interesting to hear the discussion of animal and hunting “ethics” as viewed by the guests.  I don’t want to debate the merits of the ethics, but just point out that different people have different relationships to animals and wildlife, and they have different ethical systems that have different values.

Many city people have one view of pets, livestock, wildlife and meat, and rural people tend to have another, and wildlife biologists have a different view of wildlife ethics too.  Alsosubsistence hunters like almost all of humankind and like many in Alaska have a view of ethics too.

In some of these other ethical systems, the hunt described in the podcast was unethical in several ways.  I don’t want to debate them, but I do invite people who want an intellectual challenge to see if you can understand these other points of view.  It takes a lot to actually see their views and not just quickly hear “their perspective” and judge them wrong from your perspective.

Economists could learn a lot from studying subsistence hunting and gathering as they have sophisticated property rights and ethical systems.  Some of it has been codified in American law and the laws of other nations, so it has been documented and even merged with the Western legal and economic system in various ways.

 

Thom Roethke
Jul 23 2021 at 6:33pm

And, this got me thinking, not only that for any life to go on another form of life has to die, right? This is the lifecycle. Like, it inserts you in the lifecycle, which is I think something that we don’t need to be inserted in anymore.

I had this realization several years ago and gave up meat entirely as a result.  Humans are omnivores for reasons of scarcity and evolution, not because we have to be.  In the case of ethical uncertainty I opt to the more conservative choice, and since the ethics of participating in a system involving raising sentient animals for the purpose of slaughtering and eating them is ambiguous at best, simply refusing to participate seems to me the safer option.

Comments are closed.


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AUDIO TRANSCRIPT
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:37

Intro. [Recording date: June 30th, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is June 30th, 2021 and my guest is journalist and author Michael Easter. We're going to be talking about his book, The Comfort Crisis. Michael, welcome to EconTalk.

Michael Easter: Thanks for having me on, Russ.

0:50

Russ Roberts: What is the comfort crisis?

Michael Easter: In The Comfort Crisis, I argue that a lot of the comforts and conveniences that are a part of our daily life really influence our daily lives. Everything from the fact that we don't have to put in effort for our food, the fact that our food is so calorie dense, the fact that we live at 72 degrees and don't face challenge in modern life. It's great. But, at the same time it's come with a lot of downsides. So, it's associated with a lot of our common physical and mental health problems.

So, to sort of get at that question and what it means to us and what it's done to us, I spent more than a month in the Arctic backcountry. I traveled about 30,000 miles around the world. Met with interesting characters ranging from researchers at Harvard to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, special forces soldiers, Buddhist leaders in Bhutan, etc.

Russ Roberts: And, I'm going to turn off the air conditioning in here right now. I just realized that it's on. I turned it on because it's kind of warm in this room; and I thought, if I turn it off it'll be good for the audio but what if I get hot and uncomfortable? And, the answer is, it's good for me. So, hang on one second. We may cut that, Michael; but I'm just going to turn off the air. One sec.

Michael Easter: Yeah. No worries.

Russ Roberts: But, what's wrong with comfort? Comfort's good. I like comfort. I like 72 [degrees Fahrenheit--Econlib Ed.]. Actually I like about 71, and when it's 72 I think it's a little warm in here; and I get it just right. Same with the temperature in my shower. Same with the food: I want it spiced correctly, cooked correctly. Oh, if it's overdone--I mean, we really are--these are all, of cours, classic so called first world problems. But, I'm in that boat. Most of us are in that boat. What's wrong with it?

Michael Easter: Well, we all are. Right? So, if you think about how humans evolved, we evolved in these uncomfortable, challenging, trying environments. And so, developing this drive to do whatever was comfortable for us, whether that be avoiding an environment that's too hot or too cold. That's, always finding shelter. That is when we have food, eating as much of it as possible because food was at a premium. Avoiding unnecessary movement. All these things, we default into comfort. So, this kept us alive for millions of years.

And then the last hundred years you start to see a lot of progress. Right? So, we still have these drives to be comfortable but the world is now so comfortable in many ways that we don't have to move. When we have food we have really calorie-dense food and we still have these drives to eat as much of it as possible. We avoid all risk, which is great when you're in a savanna with lions and other dangers. But, now it kind of oversteps these boundaries and we fear things like speaking in public which could improve our lives or taking risks in business, etc., etc., etc.

Russ Roberts: And, you argue--and you have lots of evidence from various studies, some of which might even be true, but let's put that to the side--you argue that this is actually bad for us. Right? Normally I would argue that, you would think--possibly intuitively, common sense might argue--the more comfortable the better. Less stress on the system. System's going to be healthier. 'I'll do fine.' You suggest, of course, that that's not the case. That we've got too much comfort. What's it do to us?

Michael Easter: Yeah. So, I tend to think about it as sort of a U-shaped curved, where, if you have this really hard, crazy, trying lifestyle that's probably going to have some ill side effects. At the same time, if you are too comfortable--so take something like activity, right? It's like, over time with how jobs have changed we've essentially engineered activity out of our lives. And, one of the biggest drivers of our high rates of chronic disease right now is a lack of cardiovascular fitness because we no longer have to get out and move.

And you can apply this to a lot of different things we face in our life--like our food system. If you're always eating the most comfortable, calorie-rich food, that's going to have some side effects.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Like, Nassim Taleb says in one of his books, the sight of the person pulling up to the hotel in the cab. The bellhop takes the bags in for the person and then half an hour later the same person's in the gym lifting weights to make up for the fact that he didn't carry his bags into the hotel.

We do that a lot. I just moved. We're looking for a permanent apartment. I don't want an apartment too close to work because I want a nice, difficult walk.

Michael Easter: Yeah, exactly.

Russ Roberts: I'm hoping. And, if we end up too close, I'll just have to not go straight. I'll have to pretend I live farther away.

5:49

Russ Roberts: So, some of this is health: Literally, physically damaging to us in various ways. But, what I found most interesting about the book is the mental and psychological challenge of too much comfort. Having just moved to Israel, I'm way out of my comfort zone. Don't speak Hebrew. I've never been the president of a college before. So, I'm stimulated. I may push way past into that other region of the U-shaped curve. But, I think the psychological impacts--and not so much of stress--you know, the fact that my flight to Newark was five minutes from Newark to connect to Israel and then decided, 'Let's go back to Washington.' That was stressful. I don't think that was good for me. I'm just guessing. But, I'm more interested in the lack of mental stimulation that comes from the comfort in our life in general. And, I think you're very timely in your argument that we're missing something in America and in the West generally because of that comfort. What are the mental and psychological things you're worrying about?

Michael Easter: Yeah. I think there's a handful of things that have really changed in our lives. I think one of them is that, you know, we aren't physically challenged any more, or we don't really face a lot of challenge. So, if you think of, even in 1990, there's this rise of helicopter parenting. So, all of a sudden--kids used to go play outside. They used to have these challenges. They used to get in fist fights. They used to learn something along the way. Then there's these high profile kidnapping cases; and all of a sudden parents go, 'Uh oh, you can't go outside anymore.' Now, the kidnapping rate wasn't actually rising that much. But, what you find in these kids who have been born after 1990 is a lot higher rates of mental health problems. Especially anxiety and depression are off the charts. They'relatively, like, two- to three-times higher.

And, I think a lot of the reason for this--there's this concept in psychology called toughening. And, it basically states that: Having way too many challenges in your life--sort of back to that U-shaped curve--is not good for you. It results in poor mental health outcomes. Even poor physical health outcomes. But, people who have too little challenge in their life, they have equally poor mental and physical health. There is a certain amount of challenge that humans need, and I think that over time we keep removing these sorts of challenges that we used to face.

So, if you think of something like a rite of passage. Right? Through nearly all of time in all these different cultures, what did young people do? We had this person who was at point A in their life, and we need them to be a producer, to be robust, strong. So, what did we do? We would usually send them out into the wild to do something really hard because along the way they are realizing that they're probably more capable than they thought they were. They're coming up against these challenges. They're having to persist. And, they're learning something about themselves along the way. And, once they return to their tribe or whatever it is, their group, they've improved as a person; and they've learned that they have this sort of gear on board that can teach them something about themselves.

9:16

Russ Roberts: Well, you talk about boredom. You have a lot of interesting thoughts on boredom. And, you talk about how the cellphone has become the alternative to boredom for most of us if we're not--if we don't have it with us, we're scared. It's frightening. And, then when we're bored, we just turn to it. We have so many things on it that can bemuse us, distract us, entertain us, teach us if we want. But, it strikes me that this is not unrelated to the Comfort Crisis in that: social interaction is very challenging for many of us, and the phone is a source of comfort for us that--we don't have to put ourselves out there, we don't have to worry if people are going to like us. We don't have to worry about maintaining a friendship. We're friends with our phone. Our phone's very happy to have us. And, I think these two things go together to some extent in modernity in modern times. And, what we lose, of course, is socializing that is, I think, an important part of the human experience.

Michael Easter: Yeah. So, a couple things there. So, I'll tell you a story. When I was in the Arctic--we were up there for more than a month--and, we were hunting caribou. Now, the thing about hunting caribou is it is a lot of waiting. You are waiting for these animals to migrate, right? And you are trying to predict where you think they're going to migrate. Now, we were wrong a lot of the time.

Russ Roberts: Can I interrupt the story for a second, Michael?

Michael Easter: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: We're going to talk a lot about your trip to the Arctic and I want to let listeners know that the hunting of caribou by Michael and his buddies is a really interesting and ethical experience, somewhat to my surprise. So, I want to let listeners who might be alarmed at this turn in the conversation to be reassured that it's going to turn out okay. Continue. Maybe even start over. Sorry about that.

Michael Easter: Yeah. No worries. So, okay I'll start over. So, when we were in the Arctic, we're hunting caribou. And, hunting caribou is a lot of waiting because you're trying to catch the animals as they're migrating from their wintering to their summering grounds.

And so, I found myself in an interesting position, which is that I was bored again. Because up in the Arctic my cellphone doesn't work. I couldn't get a single bar within 100 miles. I didn't bring books. I didn't bring magazines. Surely I didn't bring a laptop. So, I found myself doing things like reading the ingredient labels on Clif Bars and reading the tags on my outdoor gear. And, when that got boring I was like, oh, I came up with some ideas for magazine stories. I wrote some of the book.

And, I told you all that to tell you this: If I were home, I would have probably, when I felt that little tinge of boredom, pulled out my cellphone. Right? Because that's a really easy escape.

Now, the average person spends more than 11 hours a day engaging with digital media. And, that's across all formats. So, that's cellphones, that's television, that's behind your laptop screen, etc.

But, boredom, I argue in the book, can actually be beneficial. So, as humans evolved we would get bored, and it was a way that our mind sort of told us 'Hey, whatever you're doing with your time right now, the return on your time invested has worn thin.' So, it's this evolutionary discomfort that's like, 'Hey, go do something else. This isn't productive, what you're doing.'

So, if you think about it, as we're hunting like we were, we would have actually really needed food. You know. So, it would have been, like, 'Okay, well, go pick some potatoes or something. Do something else.' Nowadays, our escape from boredom is often not something that is productive. It is a descent into Instagram to watch more dog videos or whatever it is, you know. So, I make the case in the book that we sort of need these times of boredom. I think that cellphones are really unique because they're on us all the time. But, I also argue that we can't solely focus on reducing our phone time. Because, a lot of times people I've talked to, when they reduce their screen time on their phone by an hour they go, 'Well, what do I do now?' And, they go watch Netflix. You know? And, your brain doesn't know the difference between these two things.

Boredom is associated with more creativity. I think that, also, back to your question about what's going on with our skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression: I think that all of the stimulation we have has something to do with it.

So, when you're bored you're kind of allowing your brain to rest. You're going inward. Whereas when you're focusing on your phone or another screen, you're more outward and your brain is actually working. So, I think there's this, like, myriad effects of all this digital technology that has just consumed our lives. I mean, you think--in 100 years we went from nothing. To deal with boredom we would do something productive; we would have those social moments, as you spoke to. And, now, a lot of people just pull out their phone, watch Netflix.

Russ Roberts: The irony is--for me is that--while you were describing that I was filling in your sentence. I was thinking, 'And now we retreat into our cellphones.' And, yet what you did--there's another use of the word 'retreat.' I've talked about the silent meditation retreats that I've done on the program before. And, yours--although you went with two other people and you did talk to each other, certainly there were extended periods of silence on your arctic trip.

And, that's a different kind of retreat than into the phone. Into the phone is: you're keeping your mind busy with something external. And, in a real retreat--the kind you went on or the kind I've been on or the kind you have if you choose to--your brain retreats into itself; and it allows a chance for it to go places it wouldn't otherwise go if somebody wasn't talking to you, the video wasn't playing, even the podcast wasn't playing.

So, I think that's a really--it's an incredibly powerful experience. I can speak for myself and you speak in your book about it. It is--most people say, 'That'd be horrible. I'd hate that. I'd go crazy.' And, of course, you do at first and you think, 'I got to get out of here. Get me out of here.'

But, since you can't--in your case the plane had left. Couldn't get back. And, in my case I went with a buddy to my first silent meditation retreat; and I promised to take us both home, so I couldn't leave. And I couldn't ask him if he was ready to go home one day in, because it was a silent retreat. So, I think there's something really powerful there that's not obvious until you've experienced it.

Michael Easter: Yeah. I think so. So, one--this is a funny line. I was talking to this neuroscientist who studies boredom and he says, 'What people do with boredom now is like junk food for the mind.' It's cellphones, the TV. And, you know, to bring it back to discomfort, to your point, yeah, when you sit without that easy cure to not be in your own head, you might find that the person inside your head is a raving lunatic. You're going--you're thinking about random weird stuff and you're, like, 'What is this?' But, I think sometimes you can find some really interesting stuff in there.

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah.

Michael Easter: So, I'm not saying that boredom is automatically going to give you these good ideas. It's not automatically going to, you know, improve your life. I think you're going to find that there is some stuff where you're just going, 'What is this?' But, you're also going to find probably some stuff where you're like, 'Oh, well, that's interesting. I had never really thought of that.'

Russ Roberts: And, some of it's just about yourself. It's not about the next project or it's not necessarily productive.

16:59

Russ Roberts: I guess the other way to think about it, it's not so much--for me, it's not so much boredom is a good idea. It's that non-external stimulation is a good idea.

And, some people will say, 'Well, yeah, but that's boring. I need something to entertain myself.' And, the answer is, 'Well, maybe not. Maybe you could look at the sky, listen to the noise.'

You talk about how much human sound there is in the world and how little we notice it. And I think that's so profound. So many times in my life recently I've stopped to just listen. You hear a lot of things if you listen. You're hearing them. You're just not listening. And, some of them are really unpleasant and not particularly good for you. Certain discordant hums from the various appliances in your house, the street noise. But, there's some birds, there's some nice things out there. And, as you point out in the book, you can listen to yourself. Your body is making some noises if you really get into enough quiet.

Michael Easter: Yeah. Yeah. So, when I was in the Arctic it was fascinating because I had one morning where I woke up really early and the sun was just coming up and I just walked out on the tundra and just kind of looked around. And, I could hear my heart beating. And, when I say 'beating,' it's like a kick drum inside your chest. It is so quiet up there, because there's nothing around for hundreds of miles. And, then you start to hear this kind of, wshooh, wshooh--and it's carotid artery pumping blood into my brain.

And, that sort of silence is--it is eerie at first.

But, then you start to really like it. It calms you down.

So, I talked to a guy who owns, oddly enough, the world's quietest place. This is a--it's a totally soundproof room, and it's in Minnesota and they use it for a lot of different experiments. And, he talks about, when people go in there, at first it's uncomfortable to be in that much silence. Because you hear yourself. Right? But, all of a sudden it calms people down. And we know that being around too much noise and in too much noise all the time is not great for our health, because it's sort of like this slow drip of stress hormones can result in that.

Because you think about in the environments we evolved in, they were silent like it was up in the Arctic. Any time that there was a really loud noise it was--

Russ Roberts: bad news--

Michael Easter: Yeah, bad news. 'We got a storm rolling in.' 'There's an animal who wants to maybe have you for dinner.' Etc. But, nowadays it's kind of like we have this constant low-level noise that still spurts the same response in a way.

19:31

Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the idea of a misogi--a Japanese concept. And, then we'll talk about yours, your misogi, which was this trip. I want to set it up for the listeners, though, because I want to talk about hunting first. But, talk about the misogi idea that maybe gave you the idea for the trip or at least gave you something, a way to frame it.

Michael Easter: Yeah. So, I meet this guy named Marcus Elliot. And, there's a couple things you need to know about Marcus Elliot. One, is that he's a little bit of a seeker, so he's been going to Burning Man since Burning Man was a thing. He's Burning Man old school. Number two, he got himself through college as well by counting cards. But, then the second thing you need to know is that he's brilliant. So, he went to Harvard Med school. Decided he didn't want to be a doctor after he graduates. Decides he wants to totally revolutionize sports science. And, he ends up doing it. So, he has this facility. He worked for a bunch of teams, and then he opened his own facility, and he basically applies big data, quantifies human movement and performance. Uses a lot of tech and AI [Artificial Intelligence].

But, he also knows that not everything that improves a person's potential can necessarily be measured. There are sort of these immeasurables that, you know, certain athletes have. It's, like: Why are there certain athletes where at the end of a game when it's tied you go, 'Give that person the ball,' because they're going to do this thing. They have this [inaudible 00:21:04].

So, to try and get at that he does this thing called misogi, and how it's a--he took the term from an ancient Japanese tale. And, the idea is that once a year he gets a group of people and they do one really hard, sort of cooky, task.

So, for example, one year him and his friends, they got an 85-pound bolder and they walked it five miles underneath the Santa Barbara Channel. So, one would dive down, carry this thing for 10 yards, dive back up; the next guy would go. They did one year where they stand-up paddleboarded 25 miles across the channel. And, they'd never really stand up paddleboarded before, right?

So, there's two rules to misogi. Rule Number One is that it has to be really hard. And, he defines this by saying you should have a true 50% chance of finishing this thing.

And, Number Two is that you can't die. So, they do have, like, safety people when they do stuff in the water.

Russ Roberts: Try not to die, at least.

Michael Easter: Yeah. Try not to die.

And, what he's getting at here is this: Is that when a person goes out and does something truly challenging in nature--and, they're going to have these moments where they go, 'I don't think I can do this.' Like, 'I'm going to have to quit.' You know: 'I can feel the edge coming on and I can't cross that edge.' But, by kind of putting one foot in front of the other or getting that next perfect stroke in on a paddleboard, they pass that edge. And they're still going. And, you can look back and go, 'Well, wait a minute, I thought that was my edge but here I am past it.' And, 'Where else in my life might I be selling myself short?' So, you see--to sort of back up about--this sounds kooky, right? This sounds totally weird--

Russ Roberts: Stupid--

Michael Easter: Yeah. Somewhat stupid.

But, you see these misogi myths and practices like this throughout time. So, think of someone, think of the work of Joseph Campbell. Right? He identifies these heroes' journeys. And the basic setup is that you leave the comfort of your home, you go into this very trying middle ground where there is a high degree of failure, high risk of failure; and then you come out the other side and you're improved as a human. You've transitioned to a new person, Campbell argues.

And, you even see this in the military. What is the point of Hell Week? We take you from the comfort of your normal life, we put you through a really trying middle ground. When you come out the other side you even get a ranger tab or a green beret that signifies you're a new person.

And, this is the same setup as rites of passage like I talked about earlier. Right? We need these sort of moments where we learn something about ourself. Really what it is, it is a psychological and even spiritual challenge they argue that just masquerades as physical challenge.

And, these are things that humans used to have to do all the time as we evolved. We used to have to face down these physical challenges often. Whether that was from hunting, whether that was from migrating from summering to wintering grounds, whether that was from a tiger lurking in the bushes.

So, the idea is that, you know, the world--we've removed a lot of challenge from our life. Especially physical challenge. We often have intellectual challenges at work, but these aren't things that we necessarily evolve to face. So, Marcus is sort of arguing, 'I want to reintroduce some metaphorical tigers into people's lives,' because they're going to learn something about themselves from that.

24:39

Russ Roberts: So, the interesting question there for me--I thought your story--we've described your misogi as--you've described it: 'I went in the Arctic for a month and hunted caribou.' That doesn't really capture it. We're going to talk about it in more detail. I'll tell you how effective your story is. I was cold reading it. That's a good sign. And, I was tired during parts of it. Very tired. We'll get to those moments in your month there. But, I've always been fascinating by this question of whether: things like that--and I think there are intellectual versions of it--that they have a different kind of impact, I think. I signed up for a couple of classes as an undergrad I shouldn't have and I made it through. I think that helped me. I think knowing that I could do that helped me.

But, I wonder if it's more than that. It's not just, 'Oh you get,'--one way of describe these, well, you get more confidence when you succeed. Especially if it's 50/50. You don't pick a misogi that you know you can really do. It's just a little hard. These are things that are more than hard. They're greatly difficult. And, they don't have to be silly, obviously. They could just be physically demanding in ways that you haven't experienced so you don't know whether you're going to be able to finish them or not.

Michael Easter: Yes.

Russ Roberts: It's just interesting to me whether this is--you're suggesting this is an intrinsic part of the human experience, is to strive and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. Obviously the journey itself, the trying itself, is part of the growth that comes from it. It's not just, 'Oh, I did it. Now I have more confidence.' It's just an incredible piece of your life, if nothing else. Do you have any thoughts on that? You just finished one. What did it do for you besides it made you more confident, presumably?

Michael Easter: Yeah. I think there's confidence. I think you also--you know, we're not forced to do these physical things in nature anymore, and I think you find that people get a lot of reward from that.

So, sort of you mentioned the idea of 50/50. That's the beauty of it, is that one person's 50% is not the same as another person's.

So, for me it was a month in the Arctic. I went up there with a guy whose name is Donnie Vincent. He's this backcountry bow hunter and filmmaker. You know, you could send him up there for a year with a Q-tip. Maybe that would be his. Right? But, then, for my mother it could be, 'I haven't hiked to the top of that mountain I look at every day on my commute to the grocery store,' or whatever. Maybe she could do that. Three, four miles, or something like that.

I think we do get something out of--I think that there is something that really--and it's hard to describe it. It's hard to describe. Can't be measured, again. But, when you find yourself in this position where you really want to quit and you are seriously doubting yourself but you don't quit, there is, like, some really deep satisfaction that comes from that that I don't think that we often get through our everyday lives.

We no longer have to do these things. And, I think that there is a really good reason why these sort of practices existed throughout time and space. You know? It's not like the word got out. It's like people just were naturally doing this.

And, well why is that? So, I don't know. It's unmeasurable. But, there's something there. And, maybe you try it and you don't find that something; but maybe you do, and you do.

Russ Roberts: Have you read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer?

Michael Easter: I have. Yes.

Russ Roberts: So, that's a story of group of people who decide to--it's a misogi, for sure. They decide to climb Mount Everest and they're not veteran mountaineering folk. And it ends really badly. It ends with death, disfigurement. It's a very powerful story about human beings under stress.

I walked away from that book thinking, that's one of the stupidest things I've ever read about people trying to do. 'Well, I did it because the challenge was there.' That was probably not a 50/50. It turned out badly. And it violated Rule Two, as well, about death.

29:12

Russ Roberts: But, I think what made your story so powerful--let's go into it now--is that you didn't just move a boulder five miles underwater which strikes me as sort of vaguely interesting, but not really--

Michael Easter: Kooky.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, what you did was rather extraordinary. So, let's talk about, first, the ethics of the hunting that you did and what was required. Because it makes it sound like: you went there, you waited, the caribou came along, and you shot them. And, it sounds like you killed a bunch of them, by the way when you early [?]--'We went caribou hunting. Yeah. Every day we went out and shot some.' That's not what you did. So, talk about the ethics. It's very powerful and I was very moved by it. Talk about the ethics of the experience and what the plan was; and then what actually--some of what happened.

Michael Easter: Yeah. I signed on for this trip with this guy, Donnie, who I mentioned; and he spends a lot of time in these really extreme, interesting places doing these hunting films that I like to describe as more like Planet Earth but with hunting. They are more--it's kind of an intellectual journey, each of his films. And, I think they're worth watching. There's one called "Who We Are" that is on YouTube. It's just a seven-minute sort of teaser to what he does. I think it's worth watching.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We'll link to it.

Michael Easter: So, Donnie invites me up; and he says, 'I think you should hunt.' And, my initial reaction was: 'I'm a journalist. I don't get involved.' And, he told me, 'I think you'd really understand why I go up there and what the point of this is if you did hunt.'

And, I had to kind of look at my motivations for that, quick--not doing that. And, I think part of it was that I didn't want to cross what I presumed would be a pretty heavy emotional barrier. You know. I eat meat. I have, my entire life. I think 95% of Americans do. But, I didn't necessarily want to involve myself in the lifecycle. Like, that was unknown territory for me.

And so, we went up there; and I think it took about two weeks, because hunting is very hard. I think the average person doesn't realize that it's very challenging; and not to mention, we were hunting for the oldest animals we could find. So, an animal that was over eight years, because if you hunt an animal that is older it often improves the health of the herd as a whole. And, we weren't just going to hunt any given thing.

And, at one point, after a lot of failure, we're sitting on this ridge and there is a herd of caribou across the valley and on another hill. So, probably two miles away. But, we realized if they keep moving in the direction they're going, they're going to eventually cross this saddle into this other valley, and if we can position ourself on the other side of that saddle we'll be sort of hidden and in a good position. So, we get up and we start moving.

Russ Roberts: And, this is after being dropped by a two-seater plane in the middle of nowhere. Literally, nowhere. And, living in a teepee in 70 mile an hour winds for weeks and having nothing going on. Right?

Michael Easter: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: You're not hitting and missing. Shooting and missing. You just haven't even identified a target, except I think at one point and it disappears and goes over the ridge and it's gone. So, like you said, it's a lot of waiting. So, what happens?

Michael Easter: Yeah. I mean, we were carrying everything we needed to survive on our backs and all that. So, it was a lot of hard work.

Russ Roberts: How much is that roughly?

Michael Easter: Average, I would say 80 pounds for the pack weight.

Russ Roberts: Nice.

Michael Easter: Yeah. It was heavy.

Russ Roberts: I would have stayed where the plane dropped me off; and when it came back, I'd be happy to see them. But, you didn't. How far did you walk in?

Michael Easter: So, we get dropped off and then we would usually walk--

Russ Roberts: By the way, it's not an airport, just to be clear. It's the top of a hill>

Don Boudreaux: There are a lot of people who are trained in economic--

Michael Easter: Yeah. You land on the tundra in these little planes. Planes that are about the size of a Snickers Bar, actually. So, then we'd set up camp and we'd kind of move out from there and then we'd occasionally move camp just depending on what was happening with the animals.

iBut, so, we start moving to get on the other side of the saddle. Once we get there we can really stand up and sort of crane to get in position.

And, as I am doing this, I told Donnie, 'Okay,' like, 'I'll hunt.' I had purchased a hunting tag from the State of Alaska. So, I have sort of committed to this. But, at the same time I'm like, 'You don't actually have to hunt right now.' And, I had my reservations. Yet, I am carrying this rifle across the tundra.

So, we get to a point where we think they're going to start crossing this saddle. We dump our packs. I have the rifle. We hit the ground and we army-crawl in, 200 yards. Pop up and look, there's nothing there. Another hundred yards. Pop up and look. I'm looking through the rifle scope. Donnie is with me looking through binoculars. And, we see antlers appear at the apex of the saddle. And, there is one set of antlers. Then there's two and three and four and five. And, the herd is crossing. And, they've done just as we sort of anticipated. And, they start to come into focus and we're looking at them and there's one in the group that we see his antlers have this strange hitch when he walks.

Turns out he's limping. He's been injured somehow. He's very old. And, you can gauge their age based on a variety of things but one of the best ways is antlers. A lot of times they'll get really big antlers when they're seven, eight years old and they become really complex. But, when they get even older than that, the antlers aren't as big but they maintain that complexity. So, it's a real sign of age.

And, the herd is moving in. I'm still like, 'Oh my gosh. Is this actually happening?' I've got a lot anxiety and reservations. And, they're 300 yards in, 200 yards in, 150 yards in. So, this is the point where they're going to be closest to us because we're kind of at their flank. And, this animal keeps going in and out of the herd--the one with the limp that we'd identified. So, I couldn't really get him in the sight well. And, then they're at 160, and 170, and 180. And, Donnie just kind of motions over to me and goes, 'Hey, if you don't want to pull the trigger, you don't have to pull the trigger. But, if you're going to pull the trigger, you have to do it now.'

And, right as he said that I'm looking down the scope, and the herd sort of parts, and there's that one lone caribou with the limp just standing there. And, I take a deep breath and I pull the trigger. Then I pull it again. And, the caribou falls.

And, at that moment my heart sank and it was like, 'What have you done? There is no coming back from this one.' Like, 'This is going to forever--this is heavy.' You know? And so, we go to where the caribou is and the only sign that it was living was just the slightest trickle of blood coming down its neck. And, his hair is kind of quaking in the Arctic breeze, and it's just down on the tundra. And, that hit me really heavy. And, Donnie was a great person to go with because he understands the emotion that comes into it. So, he says, 'Hey, I'm going to go get your pack.' Because we'd dumped all our stuff.

So, I just sat with it for a while. And, the feeling is--it's hard to describe but what I can say is that I felt the most alive and yet depressed I've ever felt in my life. Totally new wave of emotion I've just never felt. And, I felt a lot of regret.

Donnie eventually comes back and then we start to field dress the animal so we can take it back to camp. All of it. And, as we cut it open and started getting the meat, my mind sort of shifted. Because, Donnie remembers me saying, 'Oh. It's meat.' And so, I had this realization. Because, I'm taking all that meat home. We're taking every usable part of the animal back with us. And, I had this realization. Thought, 'Buddy, you eat meat every single day and never once have you ever felt an iota of emotion when you eat meat. And, here you are now, and look at you. There's a strange disconnect there.'

So, I think that that process made me so much more grateful for the easy access we have to meat today. It also made me realize what a buy-in it is. Right? Like there's a heavy emotional buy-in to eating meat. It made me more aware. And, you would think that as a person hunts they would start eating more meat. The opposite has been true for me since I returned home, because I kind of realized what goes into it.

And, this got me thinking, not only that for any life to go on another form of life has to die, right? This is the lifecycle. Like, it inserts you in the lifecycle, which is I think something that we don't need to be inserted in anymore.

And, it also got me thinking about my own mortality. That eventually I'm going to die and my atoms are going to be used somehow. And, I will say, my mind really shifted from regret to gratitude--I think is the way that I would phrase it. Gratitude for that animal and the place I was in, but also all meat in our food system--that, I think it needs a lot of improvement. But, the fact that we have access to food is, like, unbelievable.

39:46

Russ Roberts: When you were field dressing the caribou, did you talk? I don't remember if you talked about that in the book. How long did it take to--

Michael Easter: Yeah. It took about an hour. An hour, two hours. I don't know. Time was a little wonky right then because I was so kind of in the moment. I would say it took about two hours. And, caribou weight about 400 pounds. So, we got every usable part of the animal we could. Left its entrails. We opened them so it's a lot easier for all the other animals in the Arctic to access them. So, by the time we had--maybe by Hour One, there was a lot of crows and ravens just sort of circling and waiting. And, actually--I didn't write about this in the book, but a day later we saw a grizzly bear who was on the carcass of the caribou that we had left, what was sort of left and usable.

Russ Roberts: But, did you talk?

Michael Easter: We did. Donnie sort of walked me through what we were doing. It was sort of an education for me. Which was really fascinating because we have all these different terms for meat from the grocery store, right? It's like, 'This is a T-bone. This is a,--' there are all these kind of--

Russ Roberts: Ribeye--

Michael Easter: Yeah. They're almost euphemisms that are put in place so you don't have to be reminded that, 'Oh, this is a muscle from an animal.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Michael Easter: Yeah. So, Donnie would say, 'This is the muscle that runs down his spine. We call this the backstrap, but in cows they call this the ribeye.' Or whatever it is. I can't remember exactly what it was.

So, that was really fascinating to learn. I kind of describe it in the book. It's like: Meat just sort of magically appears at the grocery store in everyday life, and it is prepared in such a way to make it not seem as if it came from a living creature. We use these different terms for it. It's really shiny and in this styrofoam plastic wrap. And, I think that part of that is to sort of not have to remind us what goes into that.

Russ Roberts: Oh, for sure.

Michael Easter: Could you imagine if they just have, like, a cow hanging at your local grocer? And, like, some obscure places will do this, but at the average Walmart they're not chopping cows in the back.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

42:09

Russ Roberts: So, in the middle of this misogi is another misogi. A mini-misogi within a misogi. You carried--at this point you're five miles from the camp?

Michael Easter: Mm-hmm.

Russ Roberts: I think? And, now you've got to get your gear and your caribou--you mentioned in passing, a very important thing. This is part of the story, though, is that you're going to eat it. This is not a trophy. You're going to eat it. As much as you can. And, you're not just going to eat it there: you're going to ship it, take it back with you and eat it later. It's really an amazing, powerful thing. But, you've got to go from where the animal fell back to the teepee, five miles. I think all up hill, actually. Most of it. Almost all of it. It's a big animal. You've got your regular gear with you already, or no?

Michael Easter: So, we left our regular gear at camp, so our packs were relatively light at that point. But, they wouldn't be once we filled it up with meat.

Russ Roberts: So, you're taking--what's it weigh at this point? A hundred pounds, maybe?

Michael Easter: Over 100 pounds, the pack weights were. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And, I'm sure it's a good pack, but hard to do. So, that description--we don't have to go into it now, but some of my favorite parts of the book is the mental experience of--plus, you're the newcomer. You've got to show--I've heard of hiking trips where some large, strong person takes someone else's pack in an act of kindness or half their stuff or three quarters of their stuff. It happens. They weren't going to do that. That's not the kind of deal that you signed up for. So, you kind of had to get home. It wasn't easy. Doesn't sound easy. I'm telling you, I'm going to sleep better tonight from the tired I felt reading about it.

Michael Easter: Right. So, yeah: the pack is over 100 pounds and the rule is that the hunter has to take out the heaviest pack. So, mine was heaviest.

And, for some background, I was on staff at Men's Health for a lot of years. I've covered a lot of different sort of interesting stuff in the physical fitness space. So, I've been thrown into some extreme gyms and done some extreme outdoor stuff. And, I can tell you that packing that caribou out was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

Your pack is very heavy. The tundra is not the sidewalk. The tundra is one of the hardest things to walk on in the world. It's very strange. I sort of describe it as a mattress that is covered in partially inflated basketballs. So, the mattress part is this soft, frozen ground; and the basketballs are these things called tundra tussocks, which are these big tufts of dense grass. So, where do you step? Right? If you step on the mattress it takes a lot of energy out of your step. Every step is harder. But, if you step on the basketballs, you might roll an ankle. And, when you have 100 pounds on your back, that roll could easily become a fracture.

And, it also got me thinking--and I get into this in the book--that humans seem to be built the way we are because we evolved to run. We would slowly but surely run down prey in the heat until the animal we were chasing toppled over from exhaustion; and then we would spear it. So, this might take 10 miles, 15 miles. This is called persistence hunting.

But, after we'd spear it--I kind of had this realization--what would we do? We would have to carry it back. Right? And so, I wondered how did that shape us, this idea of carrying weight over distance?

So, I followed up with some anthropologists at Harvard and they're doing research into carrying and how it shaped humans. So, we have certain adaptations that make us uniquely good at carrying. We're the only animals that can carry loads over distance. And, today, a lot of people jog. They do this thing that we used to have to do when we evolved. But, how many people, for exercise, carry weight over distance? Not too many. Right? It's not too common.

But, I did find one tribe of people who do, and that is Special Forces soldiers.

So, the idea of what they call rucking, which is having a heavy load in the backpack, this is the foundation of all military fitness and physical training.

Russ Roberts: It is. It is.

Michael Easter: Yeah. And, it's really shaped them into some of the fittest band of people in the world. And, I also met with some doctors at the Mayo Clinic who are now prescribing rucking to patients because it, one, has great cardiovascular benefits, makes walking a lot harder more or less.

But, number two, and this is important, is that it adds an element of strength. It has a strength element.

Now, a lot of people get their cardiovascular exercise in, but a lot of people, especially women, really miss the mark when it comes to strength training. But, that is equally important for our health. So, it's kind of this two-in-one. One of the Green Berets that I spoke to said, 'You know, it's kind of like lifting for people who hate the gym and cardio for people who hate to run.'

So, it was kind of this little fascinating dive into this other form of discomfort that we've lost over time and haven't re-engineered back into our lives.

Russ Roberts: Your story reminded me a bit--I'm sure some listeners are thinking about as well the recent episode with Sebastian Junger and his 400-mile walk across the countryside with a very heavy weight in hot heat. I think we talked about on the program our ability as humans in our past to run down prey. We're not the fastest animal. We're not the strongest. But, we have some gifts that have served us well and we have let those stultify, which--it gives me pause. I like to walk. I don't like to walk with weight. I'm thinking of taking it up, so I might become a rucker.

48:25

Russ Roberts: I want to talk about death because there's some very interesting thoughts about death and mortality in the book. But, before we get there, I want to go back to Marcus Elliot, the person you got this idea of the misogi from and some of the goofy annual stuff that he does. You said something really interesting, I thought, that you quoted him saying. He says that: A benefit of misogi is what Elliot called, quote, "Creating impressions in your scrapbook. If you're seeing and doing all the same things over and over, your scrapbook looks pretty empty when you take inventory of your life. So, we need to do more novel things to start creating more impressions in our scrapbook so we don't feel like the years are flying by. I mean, you remember every single detail of novel, meaningful experiences. You have no chance to forget them the rest of your life." Close quote.

And, I just--I've been thinking a lot and writing about this idea of the narrative we tell ourselves about our life. And, I tend to think about it as the overarching narrative. You know: 'I'm an economist,' or 'I'm a parent,' or 'I'm a spouse,' or 'a friend.' These are different identities we have for ourselves that I think play a much richer role in our lives above and beyond the actual activities.

So, it's not just that I spend time with my kids that is both pleasant and sometimes stressful, especially when they're younger, but rather: Being a parent changes who I am. And I think--but, this scrapbook idea and challenging yourself to do interesting things, I do find it interesting how much the handful of things that I've done that were both physically demanding or intellectually demanding, either one--they do, they fill up my narrative. When I replay or think about the movie of my life, they play a big role.

And, as Elliot points out, somehow I've got a lot more detail about those. I remember a lot more about those things because they're not part of the routine of, you know: Get up, check your email. It's the same stuff over and over and over again.

So, I'm sure that for you, having finished that experience, it enriches today in a way that's different than if you hadn't done it.

Michael Easter: Yeah. 100%.

And, it's not a surprise that I think people tend to fall into routine. That we tend to do the same thing day in and day out.

As we evolved, if we could predict the future and kind of build a routine that was reliable for getting food, for avoiding danger, that's what we do. Rinse and repeat every day. That kept us alive.

Well, nowadays we're not facing those challenges, but we still have this propensity to want to get into a routine. And, what happens is--there's some research that suggests--your mind basically goes into a sort of autopilot mode where you're just kind of going through the routine, you're not really present and focused.

And, what happens when you do something new, something challenging, something novel, is all of a sudden you get kicked out of that autopilot mode. Because you cannot predict what's going to happen. You have to focus because this is a new experience you're having.

So, I think it tends to leave those impressions in your scrapbook. It creates lasting memories.

And, to your point, you can probably name those two classes you took that were totally out of your comfort zone. Because it was like, 'I'm challenged, I have these things.'

We really remember the times where we're doing something new and novel, often with an element of challenge. You know, at the end of your life, I don't think people are going to be on their death bed and be like, 'Man, I'm so glad that I watched Season Seven of Billions multiple times. That was just great. That was the highlight.' Right? You're going to name these really new moments that often have their challenges.

To your point, raising kids. These classes you took that were out of your comfort zone. And, on and on.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

52:28

Russ Roberts: And, you mentioned mindfulness in passing in the book. Not in passing, but you spent a little bit of time on it. And, I think one of the interesting aspects of routine is how the brain just stops observing stuff after a while. You don't see the picture that you've kept framed over your mantle that's been there for 10 years. Literally, you don't see it. Your brain just sort of edits it out because it doesn't need to or it just fills it in and you don't appreciate it anymore. It just becomes--the first-time guest to your house goes, 'Oh, that's cool.' And, you say, 'Oh, yeah.' And, you forget you've seen it a thousand times, but you've only really looked at it maybe a few times in the last 10 years.

And, I think the challenge of life for, especially modernity to some extent, is appreciating the beauty and interest that is around us but that if we're not careful just becomes part of our routine. And, as anything, from flowers in our gardens or on our walk to work or the birds that swoop around to the paintings and things we've framed in our homes. And, it--

Michael Easter: I--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Go ahead.

Michael Easter: I was going to say, I agree and I think that something else--when you start to pay attention, when you start to maybe put yourself in moments where you're forced into attention, it can also really enhance your gratitude.

So, when I had to fly up to--I had to take six flights to get to where we ultimately ended up. But, of course a couple of those flights were on these massive 747s. Now, I hate flying. The seats are cramped. My knees are up into my throat. The TV in the seatback in front of me plays crappy movies. The coffee sucks on flights. The bathroom's too small. There's all these things that I hate about flying.

Now, I spent a month in the Arctic. I am freezing cold the entire time. If I want water, I have to hike down to a stream, get it in a water bag, basically, and carry it back up. There are grizzlies by that stream. I have to carry everything. The coffee? It sucks. It's instant. We don't even have coffee most of the time. There were all these things. If I want to go to the bathroom I have to walk out and, you know, do it out there.

So, after the month in the Arctic, when I get on my return flight back to Las Vegas, how do you think I felt about that 747? It was heaven. I had not sat in a chair, much less a soft one, for a month. I had not been stimulated by a screen for a month. Those movies, those crappy movies, they were thrilling. They were some of the most interesting movies ever. I got up, walked down the aisle, went into that closet-sized bathroom. It was warm. The water coming from the faucet was warm. When it hit my hands it was like, 'Oh, my God. This is unbelievable. This is the most amazing thing I've ever felt in my life.' Totally changed my perspective on how good we as humans have it today.

And, I think we often lose sight of that. We just kind of, we go through life and all this stuff is here, and it's just here and it's always been here. We don't have these moments that press back at us and be like, 'This thing, this thing that you take for granted every single day--climate control, hot water, the fact that you have a car, you don't have to walk, all these other things--they are unbelievable.'

Russ Roberts: And, here we are talking. You're in California? Or you're in Las Vegas.

Michael Easter: I'm in Las Vegas.

Russ Roberts: Sorry. You're in the Pacific Time Zone and I am in Jerusalem, Israel. And, we're talking--it's not quite as good as being face-to-face but I'm not noticing a big lag on the video. It may be hard for viewers to watch. But, we're having a great conversation and this is a miracle beyond imagining. That I can talk to the author of a book, and you out there listening can share it and enjoy it. We can share it with you, that. What a great world we live in! And yet, after a while it's like, 'Oh, I had a hard time logging in to Zoom. I'm really annoyed.'

Michael Easter: Yes. And, there is a good reason for this.

So, I talked to a psychologist at Harvard who did this really interesting study that basically finds that the human brain evolved to look for problems, and we compare everything to the last thing that happened to us. So, you know, as the world gets better and better, we don't have a great ability to look back 300 years and go, 'Oh man, I have it so good compared to that.' We just kind of look for the next problem.

But, our problems are increasingly hollow. So, back to like, 'Oh man, there's a lag on my Zoom logging in,' or, you know, First World problems. And, that is what we focus our time on.

So, I think for me at least, coming back, all of a sudden I have all this gratitude; and all of a sudden I'm harder to rattle, you know. I would normally be the person at a restaurant where if everything's great but they're slow filling up my water, I'm like, 'Oh man, this place. This waiter. This is unacceptable.' And, now I'm just like, 'I didn't have to walk a mile to get this water. It'll be there eventually. This is awesome. This place is warm. This is more calories in a single meal than I would eat in a single day in Alaska.' Yeah.

57:38

Russ Roberts: So, one more thing before we get to death. Very appropriate. You killed that caribou with maybe the first shot, but certainly two, at 100-something yards. You mention in the book that you'd shot targets at 1,000 yards when you practiced for this. Had you ever shot a rifle before?

Michael Easter: I had experience with guns. I didn't have much rifle experience. So, that's why I had contacted a guy through a different network who was a--

Russ Roberts: You practiced. Just for the record. That's all I want to make clear.

Michael Easter: Yeah, I practiced a lot.

Russ Roberts: I just want to let listeners know that this is an amazing--I mean, I'm sure besides the emotional upheaval of taking an animal's life, the macho challenge of shooting a rifle in front of two other people and missing, that must have been on your mind, too, I assume.

Michael Easter: Yeah. And, I think it does go back to that idea of impressions in my scrapbook. Before, my days were totally routine. When I decide I'm going to go up to the Arctic, it's like, 'You have to totally change your lifestyle because you need to get ready for this thing.' I mean, I had to change my exercise routine. My patterns in the evening totally changed. And all of a sudden I have to read all these books about the Arctic landscape, wildlife, all this different stuff. I have to meet up with this guy who's a--he's a Federal Agent and a competitive rifle shooter and he teaches me how to shoot a rifle really well. Put in a lot of time doing that. And, then when I get up there, I don't know if I'm ready, but I'm closer than I was. Right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, that's so scary.

Michael Easter: And, I remember all that.

Russ Roberts: That is so scary. The fear of failure. We didn't talk about it. You didn't write about it literally, explicitly, much. There's a little. But, that is part of this. It's not just that you won't do this task that you were trying to do. There's shame and disappointment. So, anyway, my hat's off to you. It's a inspiring story and one that I wouldn't have expected to be inspiring. So, that was very cool.

59:50

Russ Roberts: But, in the course of the book you write about death. And, you write about it because you're interested in this question of whether we as Americans in the West and the West generally have shied away from it. And, we clearly have. You mention the 19th century--I know[?] this from the book--Lincoln at Gettysburg: People used to go--in the 19th century they'd have a Sunday, they'd go hang out in the cemetery for the moral uplift of remembering one's own mortality.

I had a teacher--I think it's true. He famously, among his friends at least, he built a coffin and he kept it in his attic and he used to lay down in it. I don't know how often he did it. Once would be plenty for me. Or zero. And, as I get older I start to think, 'That's an interesting practice.' I'm not sure I could do it. But, it is provocative. And, I think funerals are really powerful experiences. I used to dread them and shy away from them and--

So, you go to Bhutan, and you talk to some Buddhists about death. And, the part that grabbed me was that we're all walking, marching, running toward a 500-foot cliff that we have to go over and it's over. And, there's two ways to deal with that. Or two ways to approach it. One way is: 'Let's pretend there's no cliff,' and the other way is to remember, often, that there's a cliff. So, talk about those two choices.

Michael Easter: Yeah. So, after hunting I just got interested in this idea of why I didn't want to hunt in the first place. How, I think we in America, we are removed from death and we do want to ignore it. And, this goes from our food system to our funeral system.

And, in Bhutan they view death a lot differently. So, the citizens are instructed to think about death anywhere from one to three times a day. And, to sort of get to the heart of this, I met with a handful of people; but one of them is a Khenpo, which is a high-up position in the Buddhist faith. And, to get to this guy--you have to hire a driver in Bhutan, tourists do. We had to drive up this rutted out, cliffside road for miles. And, my driver was like Baja 500 in this little smart car to get us up there. And, the guy lives in this shack that's sort of in the shadow of this big monastery. And, I sat with him for a couple hours. And, it was really fascinating; and yeah, he basically stated that, you know, in America we don't want to think about the cliff. We're just going to ignore that the cliff is there.

The cliff is there. We are all walking towards it this very second. By realizing that there's a cliff there, can change your behavior. By really being aware that there's a cliff, you are maybe going to say things differently to the people that you are walking towards this cliff with, right? Maybe you're going to slow down and pay attention to the beautiful nature around the cliff.

So, the idea, really, is that by becoming aware of your own impermanence, it has the ability to change your behavior in a positive way. You don't take things for granted. Maybe you don't slip into those routines that we do all the time, or maybe you question the routine: 'Why am I doing this? This ride is going to end. Is this how I want to spend my time on this ride?'

You're also--and I've experienced this myself--if I'm aware that I'm going to die one day and the people that interact with are, too, I just don't find myself getting as worked up about the stuff that used to work me up. The small stuff, right? Those little squabbles that we get in. It's kind like, 'Whatever.' I can focus on that which is most important.

And, it seems to--there's some research around this that's really interesting--but it seems to improve people's quality of life and improve happiness because it changes your behavior.

Now, to bring it back to the theme of the book being comfort and discomfort, really taking into your mind that you are one day going to die is the most uncomfortable thing you could ever think about. When you run this through your mind--and I've had moments where--I will willingly admit when I've had, like, the moments where you really understand this, I will sob like a child in my bed.

Russ Roberts: Oh; sure.

Michael Easter: But, guess what? The next day, I still have that in the back of my mind and my behavior is different; and I think that I'm more present, I'm more aware. I make decisions that improve my wellbeing. Not only mine, but also those of the people that I love. Right? I'm just a more present, engaged human; and I realize the clock is ticking so let's not waste this time.

1:04:46

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it's two things. I think--you know, 'Seize the day' is obviously a good idea. Carpe diem is obviously wise. You can't do everything--we've talked on the program recently about the fact that if you read a book a week for 50 years you'd get 2,500 books to read, so read the good ones. That's just one example of being aware that you're not going to read every book you might want to read, so choose wisely.

But, I think it's so much more than that. You say 'change your behavior.' I think it includes what I think is even more important which is: it changes how you experience everything you do. I think one of the great benefits of getting older--I've never thought about being old. You know, I'm 66. I was a professor most of my life and I think being a professor is a pretty stressless job and you're hanging out with young people and you think you're going to live forever. And, then one day you realize you're not. Partly because you're getting older and your body starts to remind you and partly because people you love are no longer with you.

And, it should make you sad; and sometimes you sob like a baby because it makes you sad. But, it also--some of the times when I am deeply moved emotionally about my own mortality, it's not because I'm sad. It's just because how wonderful it is and how--it's so much of a bittersweet emotion. It's bitter because it's going to end, but it's sweet because it's so precious.

And, I just think, that--I don't know if it's an awareness so much. I don't know if you need to say it three times a day or pause to meditate on it three times a day, but I think when you encounter your own mortality or realization of that, everything becomes richer. That whole routine thing is out the window. Every breath you take is precious. The sunshine is precious. The moon rising is precious. Venus setting at sunset is precious. The smile of your wife. I mean, it's all precious. And, mortality helps you savor that in a way that makes it special.

Living forever seems like a good idea. That's an example, by the way, for comfort--our urge to extend our life, I think is part of the same mistaken effort, idea of where deep meaning comes from.

Michael Easter: Yeah. I agree.

Russ Roberts: It's the wrong way to go.

Michael Easter: Yeah. I love what you said about that, too. I remember one time I'm--my wife and I are in the car and it's kind of like a cloudy day but the clouds are really interesting with different grays and blacks; and this flock of geese flies above the car. And, I see it; and it's like I'm aware of it. And, I just start crying because it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. And, my wife just looks at me, like, 'What's wrong with you?' Right? But, I'm going to remember that forever. And, it's like this deep feeling of just appreciation for everything we have and for the ability to be sort of aware in moments like that and really savor and appreciate them. I mean, the more moments you have like that in life, man, that's what life is about, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, then there's the human encounter where, when I was younger someone might share something with me that--I just don't want to hear it. It's depressing. And, it's about something that happened to them. And, my mind is not really taking in the words because my mind is screaming, 'Run away. Don't listen. Think about something else. Don't want to hear it.' And, at some point, I think partly because I went on those silent meditation retreats, I've looked for those opportunities. And, a handful have come my way since then, and they're some of my favorite moments of being alive. And, in one of them the person actually said to me in the middle of it, 'You don't want to hear this.' And, I looked at her and I said, 'Yes I do.' And, I meant it. It wasn't just politeness. And, what she told me was one of the most powerful things I've ever experienced about something that had happened to her that she needed to tell somebody. And, I think, boy, those are precious gifts to be able to have that. And, I missed most of them when I was younger. I was afraid to hear them. Didn't want to hear them.

And, part of that's running, I think, from mortality. These stories about horrible things that happen to people or the painfulness of the world generally, you just want to say, 'I'm going to go watch that Netflix season I like.' And, as you get older, and if you're lucky it happens when you're younger, you realize that those are the best moments. They're not the ones to run away from.

Michael Easter: Yeah; 100%. I couldn't agree with you more. You can be there for life more or less, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Right. You can actually be alive. What a crazy idea.

Michael Easter: Imagine that.

1:09:52

Russ Roberts: Well, let's close with what's next for you. And, I don't mean what's your next book project. How did this experience--and obviously the book was more than just the month in the Arctic: a whole bunch of things that you thought about for a long time as you wrote it. You say you're a little more resilient. You're a little more patient. Sounds like a little more--I think your wife said less easily rattled. I think you alluded to that earlier in our conversation. Do you see yourself going back to the Arctic? Are you going to go try to kill a caribou with a bow and arrow?

One of the challenges of these--once you take on this mentality is you can't go every year to the Arctic because that's, like, routine. Although it's not really routine actually, I'm sure. Because then the plane goes down and you've got to cut your leg off and amputate your own leg and all those things you learned in your medical training before. Yeah, it's a little challenging. Relieving the brain aneurysm with a handheld drill. Anyway. Sorry. I'm on tasteless ground here. But, I'm curious, do you have plans? Did it change your workout routine? Did it change your physical demands on yourself?

Michael Easter: Yeah. I think it--I mean, like I said, I'd been at the Men's Health Magazine for a long time; and the way that I approach physical activity is totally different after this. The way that I approach food is very different after this. The way that I approach life in general is very different and I think one of the main benefits of the trip was gratitude.

And so, for me, I think it's thinking of: 'What are other ways I can get this? What's the next sort of misogi, if you will? The sort of thing I'm going to challenge myself with because I'll have to prepare for it. I'll learn something along the way. And, it'll be valuable.'

And, I don't think that the misogi will always be some big outdoor thing. To your point about a silent meditation retreat, that sounds kind of interesting. I could probably learn something about what's going on upstairs there. So, something like that sounds interesting. I think it's sort of keeping that open and saying Yes to things that come my way. Because I think a lot of times in modern life we can get caught in the narrative of 'Well, I have to do x, y, and z.' And, it's like, 'Well, why?'

You ask why six times, you might be stumped. And, if you're stumped, then maybe you don't know everything, right? So, I think being open to new experiences is really just what I'm shooting for.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Michael Easter. His book is The Comfort Crisis. Michael, thanks for being part of EconTalk.


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