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Creature Comforts

written by Aren Cohen 25 November 2013

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

I love the expression, “creature comforts.”  Of course, this phrase was originally intended to highlight the material possessions and luxuries that provide us with comfort.  But I think it works the other way around. Comfort can make us fully realized beings. Comfort can make us happy and brave creatures.

I figured that the term creature comforts was a modern idiom.  However, a Google search yielded some delightful findings.  For those of you who have never seen a Wallace and Gromit film, you are missing out.  Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit, made a short film in 1989 called Creature Comforts about animals living in a zoo.  It is adorable.

My favorite character is a Brazilian puma.  He does his best to balance the advantages of the zoo (technology, including double glazed windows) with what would make him really happy (outdoor space, a warm climate, and better food).  As a creature in captivity, the puma is brilliant at identifying the things that give him false comfort, and what would give him real comfort.  It is telling that before the film was made into a television show, it first inspired an advertising campaign for the UK electricity board.

Material Comforts

maytagComfort and materialism have come to go hand in hand.  During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, new products came to market (think dishwashers and washing machines) that were intended to make people’s lives easier and more comfortable.  The human condition was supposedly improving with the invention of technologies that did our dirty work for us.  Yet while a dishwasher in 1955 may have made life easier, in the almost sixty years since then, the idea of comfortable has been perverted.  Now, rather than indicating the ease of turning on an electric table lamp instead of burning an open and luminescent candle, comfortable has come to represent a “concept idea” marketed by retailers ready to supply new throw pillows or the most current flat screen TV in order to make us more comfortable.

Unfortunately, as a society, we have bought into this marketing ploy, even if our friend the Brazilian puma has not.  If neighbors were lured by a combination of the easier lifestyle promised by advertisements and a sense of social pressure to purchase the newest Maytag in 1956, perhaps it was understandable not only for convenience but also for the novelty effect.  However, the comfort that a washing machine provides has faded over time, as we have adjusted our hedonic treadmills.  Hand washing clothing and dishes is considered a chore in modern life, and it can feel like a waste of time compared to other responsibilities. Indeed, these material comforts may save time and make life easier.  But to the extent that they support social comparison and materialism, they have toxic effects.

However, dishwashers and washing machines remove us from a certain part of our own humanity. Just like the Brazilian puma laments not being able to go out and hunt, I believe that more and more we miss the respite that caring for our own more basic needs provides.  

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t have a dishwasher, and sometimes I wish I did.  But, perhaps surprisingly, there are times when I actually take comfort in doing the dishes.  When I wash my dishes, there is a simple gratification of having accomplished something useful and tangible.  Oddly enough, doing the dishes can feel more rewarding than two hours that go down the drain in free-association web surfing.

Creature Comforts Historically

It turns out that creature comforts is not such a modern term.  One of the first uses appears in the book Concise Commentary On The Whole Bible by Matthew Henry, published in 1708. Henry writes, “See what perishing, uncertain things our creature-comforts are.”  I agree with Henry; certain things are fleeting.  He refers to Joel 1:8-13 of the King James Version of the Bible, which includes the passage “The field is wasted, the land mourneth; For the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.”  Most people today would agree that sustenance is not merely a creature comfort. It is revealing that over three hundred years, our idea of comfort has shifted from a good harvest to dishwashers, electricity, and double glazed windows.

Comfort & Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Comfort is only achieved when certain conditions are met, which Matthew Henry’s early use of creature comforts highlights magnificently.  From the standpoint of traditional psychology and within the context of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, comfort exists once physiological needs like food and sleep are met. Obviously, if we are constantly hungry we are inherently uncomfortable.  

However, comfort interacts with all of the layers in Maslow’s needs pyramid in complex ways. Ultimately the development of our comfort gives us the chance to reach self-actualization.  Between physiological needs and self-actualization, Maslow’s hierarchy identifies three types of requirements: security needs, social needs and esteem needs.  According to Maslow, physiological, security, social, and esteem needs are deficiency needs.  In other words, if we lack food and shelter, financial and personal resources, friends, family and a level of self-confidence and respect, we suffer, either physically or mentally. Technically, the animals in the Creature Comfort zoo have these needs met. They are fed, they are protected and, in most cases, they have companions.  Even the visitors to the zoo seem to respect them.  However, our friend the Brazilian puma and the Gorilla seem unhappy and uncomfortable, even with these deficit needs met. They are unable to strive for their self-actualization needs.

The emotion of comfort can only be healthily cultivated when our deficit needs are met. In fact, if the deficiency model says we are uncomfortable, be it something as basic as hunger or as complex as anxiety or loneliness, then positive psychologists must ask, “What happens in cases where we are not operating at a deficit?”  Our language for the person who has all of his or her deficiency needs met should be that the person is comfortable.  Ironically, in his natural habitat, our Brazilian puma likes the heat and the sun, but cares less about those fancy windows.  Equally, we may not have all of the latest luxury goods but we can still live in our comfort zone, feeling relatively free and at ease.  Once we arrive in this comfort zone, we can possess what Maslow termed “meta-motivation,” the trait that allows us to strive to fill our creative, problem-solving, and moral needs, that is, our self-actualization or “being” needs.

Getting Crafty

Another find on my online search about creature comforts was the creature comfort blog.  This blog is a really interesting hybrid, as its directory includes both “shop” and “make.” It is the “make” part of this blog that captures my interest.  Rarely do I think shopping really helps serve self-actualization needs.  Usually when we shop, we believe we have some deficit that needs to be filled—an empty fridge or some distress that can be handled with retail therapy. 

However, the movement to Do-it-yourself projects and a new domesticity, well exemplified on the creature comforts blog, is about those being needs that Maslow designated as part of self-actualization. More people are cooking, baking, gardening, building furniture and making craft projects lately.  I believe this has roots in positive psychology, and our desire for both self-actualization and a true sense of holistic comfort.

The Knitting Circle

For me, this means I am knitting again.  I get a lot of comfort in knitting.  I am not an expert knitter by any means; however, in my little knitting circle, I am one of our more experienced members of our group.  I was taught the craft by my grandmother at the age of 7, and have knitted, off and on, my whole life.  In the group, I am sometimes a knitting coach.  Collectively we all contribute to each other’s comfort, and our knitting circle, more than Maslow’s renowned theory, exemplifies my real ideal of comfort.

Before our first meeting, knitting was maybe just outside my friends’ comfort zone.  It was a challenge for them to push their meta-motivation.  Unquestionably, my friends have all of the deficit needs identified by Maslow met. They are confident in their overall abilities and extremely accomplished.  However, knitting is a fresh endeavor for them, one that requires problem solving and creativity.  I’ve been watching as knitting has become more comfortable (and perhaps comforting) for them.  Gaining mastery in this new arena is about much more than establishing confidence.  Our knitting is a comfort and a growth process.  Our knitting is an opportunity to exercise our potentials.

When we began, my friends were working on beautiful chunky wool scarves.  Since these ladies could easily go and buy scarves, why knit them? My a-ha came when I watched Clare wrap her growing purple scarf around her neck and when Alix told me that she had been on a knitting binge since I last saw her and had finished a hat to match the green scarf she completed the week before.  

The sly grins and quiet pride that shone on each of their faces were awe-inspiring.  Perhaps this is Maslow’s self-actualization, but in that moment I perceived something else too. Once Clare’s purple scarf is done, I know she will treasure it more than the other scarves in her closet.  Every time Alix wears her green hat and scarf, it will provide her a sense of comfort.  Yes, they will feel warm and safe every time they wear their winter accessories, but they will also be reminded of the fruits of their labors, comforted knowing that they made them with their own hands.

Unlike store bought goods, these knitted creations are proof of our vitality in a profound way.  The creativity knitting requires and the form of care it provides return us to our elemental humanity.  Like many of the simple things that have disappeared from our daily modern lives, our return to knitting assures us of our abilities to provide for our most fundamental needs.  Indeed, the goods produced are the best creature comforts.


Cohen, A. (2013). Comfort has many facets. Positive Psychology News.

Cherry, K. (no date). Hierarchy of needs. About.com Psychology.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96.

Photo Credit mostly via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses

Puma courtesy of ucumari
Maytag ad courtesy of JoeInSouthernCA
Soapsud: A job done courtesy of oatsy40
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs author User:Factoryjoe
Making toys courtesy of littlebitmanky
Knitting circle courtesy of Big Mind Zen Center
Purple scarf courtesy of freakgirl

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1 comment

Kathryn Britton 27 November 2013 - 4:43 pm

This was fun to read.

Your examples made me think of another kind of comfort: comforting memories. In particular, thinking about your grandmother teaching you to knit and you washing dishes made me think about washing dishes with my grandmother. She washed and I dried. If I ever tried to put a dish back that wasn’t entirely clean, she’s sniff and say, “It’s a poor dish towel that can’t do half.” I can’t tell you how much pleasure comes from thinking of Grammie at the kitchen sink. We had many fine conversations there, looking out the kitchen window to see what Mrs. Nail was doing across the street.

You also made me remember learning how to knit from my stepfather. He had just made my 10-year-old brother a brown turtle neck sweater with turtles walking around the waist when I said I wanted to learn. He taught me the continental style, which tends to make people who learned the English style wonder what I’m doing. It’s comforting to think about the people who took time to teach us skills.

Have a fantastic time with your family over Thanksgiving.



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