I am sitting at my computer eating a comfort food. Specifically, I am eating a warm, buttery oatmeal raisin cookie from my favorite bakery. I am trying to find my comfort zone, that magical place where I feel free to write. I am sitting in a Starbucks looking out on the street. I am typing. That’s a good thing.
I have been thinking about comfort. Initially part of an intellectual investigation about the idea of home (the result of living through a major home repair), comfort soon became a more intriguing question. In his book, Home, author and architect Witold Rybczynski explains that the notion of comfort, in the sense of domestic well-being, did not appear in our lexicon until the eighteenth century. He offers economic, cultural, and technological reasons for this, and suggests that designers and retailers like Ralph Lauren and Pottery Barn have built their businesses around helping people design comfortable living environments.
Yet Rybczynski’s astute commentary on comfort does not explain the version of comfort that Simon & Garfunkel express in the song Homeward Bound, when they sing, “I need someone to comfort me.” The home Simon and Garfunkel describe is where “my love lies waiting silently for me.”The Many Faces of Comfort
Comfort is a complex word, both a noun and a verb. As a noun, Google defines comfort as either a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint, or consolation for grief or anxiety. When used as a verb, comfort is defined as “to make someone feel less unhappy; console.” Comfort has also become an adjective, in the case of my eating a comfort food cookie in my comfort zone.
I turned to my dictionary for some context after recently rereading Barbara Fredrickson’s seminal article What Good Are Positive Emotions?. Fredrickson lists joy, interest, love, and contentment as our four basic positive emotions. Given that comfort is a state, I have to wonder if it is not a feeling. Apparently comfort, and its variation comfortable, are not emotions. Yet clearly when we are in a state of comfort, some positive emotion is involved. It seems to me that the most obvious emotion connected to comfort is contentment, although interest and (as Simon and Garfunkel so wisely point out) love are too.
Comfort and Joy?
“Tidings of Comfort and Joy.” Perhaps the result of too much winter caroling, it seems that comfort and joy have been long separated as two different things. Joy, of course, seems effusive and ebullient. By comparison, comfort seems more contained and more intimate. The things that make us joyous are obvious and easily shared: the birth of a child, reuniting with a good friend. The things that make us comfortable are more unique and discreet. For me, it’s the oatmeal raisin cookie, but for you it might be a slice of pizza. In this sense, comfort holds hands with contentment. The things that provide us comfort are pleasing, calming, and satisfying, but they are rarely monumental in scope or size.
Comfort and Interest?
To the extent that we feel comfort, we have the liberty to experience the emotion of interest. This aspect of comfort interests me professionally. How does comfort impact curiosity? I have read and experienced that novelty is good for brain development and for keeping us engaged. Certainly in his book Curious?, Todd Kashdan endorses curiosity and novelty as essential “ingredient[s] for a meaningful life.”
However, as a teacher of children, I have come to recognize that complete novelty does not support curiosity. For my students to learn best, they must be at a certain comfort level before they are receptive to something new. For children, too much novelty can lead to overload, or even “fight or flight.” While positive emotions effectively “broaden and build,” they only can do so when comfort is in place.Comfort and Security
Perhaps there are times when we aren’t interested in broadening and building, but are searching for the reassurance of predictability. In a wonderful article in the New York Times called Familiarity Breeds Content, the former food critic Frank Bruni discusses the pleasure of repeatedly visiting a favorite restaurant. As adults, what is that positive emotion when we savor something for its predictability, if not comfort?
Maybe then, we need comforts for two purposes: first to sooth us when we want the predictability of what resembles home and also to provide us enough security to push the boundary into interest and curiosity, particularly when we are children.
How do we develop our comforts?
Comfort as a noun is a thing (state, feeling) that people experience. Personally I am becoming more convinced that comfort is really an emotion parallel to joy, which also facilitates interest, contentment and love. However to comfort, the verb, requires two active parties. This, I suspect, is what dear George Vaillant would call the “goodie-goodie” part. In the case of grief or anxiety, comfort may mean consolation. However, I also like to think of comfort as a synonym for soothing, and sometimes we don’t need soothing from a specific grief, but just something to calm us down or put us at ease. (Thank you, oatmeal cookie!)Psychologists John Bowlby, Harry Harlow, and Mary Ainsworth were instrumental in constructing modern attachment theory. Whether it’s ducks or monkeys or humans, initial comfort comes from infants attaching to adults who sooth and care for them when they cry. By adults providing succor, children gain comfort, not just in terms of food or a clean diaper, but also in a larger sense of knowing that there is someone there to care for them and to provide relief for their discomfort.
As we get older, we find ways to soothe ourselves (be it meditation or oatmeal cookies); much more importantly, we also come to find comfort in others. It is that version of comfort, the one found in other people, which Simon and Garfunkel sing about in Homeward Bound. This is the profound sense of comfort learned in infancy and carried into adulthood.
Comfort Can Flow One Way
The funny thing about comfort is that, at this moment in time when “give and take” is being championed so strongly, I am not so sure that comfort is, by definition, bilateral. I believe that comfort is deeply rooted in trust and in a sense of dependence, but not necessarily a mutual dependence. Comfort is not identical to Love, “Big Love,” or the strength of Love. Big love has a reciprocity factor, to love and be loved. The “A-ha” moment of comfort arrives in allowing oneself to be loved and knowing it’s ok to depend on that.
My students feel comfortable with me because they perceive that they can count on me to love them. Thus they can feel assured that it is all right to explore and take intellectual risks with me because I’m here with an open heart and a safety net.
In the song Homeward Bound, the comfort longed for is part of what defines home. Yes, a comfortable home offers safety. More importantly, it is a nest where trust and care abides, where it is completely okay to be oneself. The protagonist of the song knows that he will find comfort not because of the smell of warm baking oatmeal cookies. Solely with a loving presence, the love that “lies waiting silently” is ready to comfort his soul.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
Rybczynski, W. (1987). Home: A Short History of an Idea. Penguin Books.
Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Oatmeal Raisin cookie courtesy of Aren Cohen
Jewel Facets courtesy of jurvetson
A Familiar Table courtesy of Ianto Roberts
Caroling courtesy of jmtimages
Attached ducklings courtesy of Gerry Balding