IN 1831, FRENCH SOCIOLOGIST Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States, that fledgling nation fluffing its wings, to observe its penal system. The result was an inconsequential paper on jails and penal reform, followed soon after by a two-part blockbuster tome on the democratic experiment. “Democracy in America” has never been out of print since. And in a chapter entitled “On the taste for material well-being in America,” de Tocqueville notes that, in the United States, “minds are universally preoccupied with meeting the body’s every need and attending to life’s little comforts.”
That was in the 1830s. Before central heating and air conditioning, toilet paper and widespread indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water. Before sweatpants, sneakers, spandex. Before the Slanket and single-serve brownies you can bake in a mug in the microwave, comfort wine, “Gilmore Girls” and the drive-thru. Since de Tocqueville’s visit, the meaning of “comfort” has expanded, as have the ways in which we seek it and meet its demands. Despite lacking an objective definition — what’s comfortable for me may not be for you — “comfort” is ubiquitous.
Americans’ self-image is as a nation of rugged individualists who tamed the continent, dug the Panama Canal, and put a man on the moon. Yet the quest for comfort — for softness and sameness, for friendliness and familiarity, for a place to plop down and relax in peace — seems perfectly natural and fundamentally American. The frontier spirit may be part of the national psyche, but Americans are still lounging in “athleisure” outfits and choosing vehicles for their cupholders.
The search for comfort extends far beyond consumer goods. As economist Tyler Cowen writes in his recent book “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” Americans don’t start businesses like they once did; they don’t move as often, either. Even the red-blue divide, the source of so much tension in American politics, reflects a tendency to flock to neighborhoods to where everyone shares the same class, race, education and worldview.
So, where does this quest for comfort lead? If we persistently see messages that say we can’t handle discomfort, how do we know how to deal with it when it does come? And does that mean more things will become uncomfortable as our ability to handle discomfort wanes?
“Well, it does,” said Frank Trentmann, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of “Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th Century to the 21st.”
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people haven’t always wanted to be quite so comfortable. The desire for comfort in the modern sense is a fairly recent cultural decision, born out of the explosion of things for the home over the last 400 years or so. Home is, as historians and sociologists point out, an evolving concept that only in the last two centuries has come to mean a place of privacy, rest, and relaxation. The word “comfort” itself, dating from the Middle Ages, first had emotional, religious connotations. It meant being in a state of satisfaction in oneself, or emotional solace received from prayer, friends, and family. It wasn’t until the 17th century that comfort, largely in the Western world, came to be associated with physical well-being and one’s relationship to their material furnishings and environment.
In his book “The Invention of Comfort,” John Crowley writes, “Physical comfort — self-conscious satisfaction with the relationship between one’s body and its immediate physical environment — was an innovative aspect of Anglo-American culture, one that had to be taught and learned.” That material comfort had to be learned is very different from how we talk about it now. Comfort exists now as a natural concept, as inherently desirable and necessary.
“It’s as if comfort has no history, as if it’s completely obvious what being comfortable means, which is nonsense, because it changes over time and cultures,” explained Elizabeth Shove, a professor at the University of Lancaster, whose work is largely concerned with thermal comfort.
Take air conditioning. It was invented in 1902 to control humidity in a printing plant. For decades after, air conditioning was largely found in factories and offices. It took decades for residential air conditioning to catch on, even in hotter parts of the United States. In 1965, just 10 percent of homes had air conditioning. But by 1993, that figure had risen to 68 percent, representing a triumph of national electric infrastructure, the air conditioning industry, increasing consumer demand, and changing definitions of comfort. By 2009, that figure was up to 87 percent. What we thought of as comfortable or tolerable had fundamentally changed. (Hint: It didn’t include sweating.) Though the hotter parts of the country remain the most AC-dependent, recent news reports have noted that air conditioning is becoming even more standard in places that have traditionally not used it, such as the Pacific Northwest. This is driven partly by an actual rise in heat waves — and partly by the expectation that you shouldn’t have to suffer through them.
As Trentmann noted, “Basic needs may appear basic at one point in time, but they were luxuries for the previous generation.”
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The arc of consumer comfort is not a steady upward curve. But there is evidence that, in the last century, we have devoted more and more energy to aggressively pursuing comfort. For example, the American concept of comfort has become tied to space. In numbers, that means that the average floor area of a new house increased from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,266 square feet in 2000. Even as household size itself decreased, floor area per capita rose from 286 square feet in 1950 to 847 in 2000. At least some of that extra space is filled with comfort appliances, a broad category including coffee makers and refrigerators, or with flat screens and other gadgets; as a result, the per capita American energy demand doubled between 1968 and 2008.
Perhaps the other area that best illustrates how much more we crave comfort than we did even 20 years ago is in clothing. “Americans, in the past 100 years, changed their relationship with their clothing to be about comfort, practicality, durability, rather than. . . showing pecuniary strength,” explained Deirdre Clemente, director of the Public History program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of “Dress Casual: How American College Students Redefined American Style.”
Casual — and expressly comfortable — clothing began with the invention of sportswear.
Sports had become a new category of leisure activity by the end of the 19th century. By the start of the 20th century, clothing makers were designing clothing fit for that purpose. At the same time, non-sports clothing was becoming more utilitarian. Skirts became less full, and what women wore under them less constricting. College kids in the 1930s and ’40s took sportswear off the field and courts and onto campuses, while lifting jeans, invented by Levi Strauss in 1873 for miners and cowboys, off the working man. “Casual” became a byword for youthful, fresh, free, and, of course, comfortable. It also suited how Americans perceived themselves. Americans, men especially, as sociologist David Riesman wrote in his 1950 classic text, “The Lonely Crowd,” harbored a “fear of being thought high hat,” noting “the sport shirt and casual dress show that one is a good fellow not only on the golf course or on vacation but in the office and at dinner too.”
Casual gave way to even more casual. Now, 96 percent of American consumers own jeans, averaging seven pairs each. Despite denim’s rugged American ancestry, many jeans today are made with stretch — spandex, elastane, or polyester — and marketed as more comfortable than sweatpants. Speaking of sweatpants, the United States is the largest sportswear consumer in the world, and 9 out of 10 consumers say they wear sports clothing outside of doing actual sports.
“Casual clothing has sort of phased out other aspects of people’s wardrobes. I think even 20 years ago, in a guy’s closet, you might have found two sports coats. Now, you might not find one. People don’t have an iron,” Clemente said. And, really, why should they? According to a 2016 survey of more than 40,000 business professionals across the globe by workspace provider Regus, 74 percent of respondents believed that a suit and tie were too formal for the modern office, 79 percent felt that jeans are suitable for the office, and 51 percent said t-shirts were. And 43 percent of people who worked from home said they sometimes worked in their pajamas, 20 percent in their underpants.
Clothing is much more than the thing we cover our bodies with, it’s part of who we are and how we choose to act in the world; as Clemente said, “It’s the incarnation of culture in what we wear.” The same can be said for most of the stuff we buy and consume, from food to energ y to heat or cool our homes — these things furnish our identities, explain and display who we are. “The comfort thing — what is it saying about us? That we’re unable to be uncomfortable, that your whole existence should be about being comfortable,” said Clemente.
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By the middle of the 20th century, comfort, whether through clothing or products for the home, had become deeply entwined with consumerism, which was itself deeply entwined with American patriotism, citizenship, and self-identity. In her book “Tourists of History,” Marita Sturken notes that comfort took on dimensions of self-preservation and security. “The selling of comfort,” she writes, “is a primary aspect of the affirmation of innocence in American culture.” By the end of the millennium, buying comfort was an act of American character. But at what cost?
It is, admittedly, a leap from America’s love affair with poly-blends, mac ’n’ cheese, and temperature control to the country’s current crisis of confidence — its state of widespread emotional and political division, increasing loneliness (a Cigna survey this month found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone), disintegrating social bonds, and rising numbers of anxiety disorders. It seems almost trivial to suggest that something so innocent, so natural, so understandable, could be part of a dark current. But there may be a correlation between cultural comfort-seeking, our feeling that we are entitled to comfort, and the difficulty we have in confronting the nation’s major problems.
For one thing, comfort itself has become normalized. Once something becomes “normal,” Elizabeth Shove noted, it becomes standardized. “That,” she says, “is a position that works against variation and diversity.” Basically — if it’s different, it makes people uncomfortable, and that’s bad.
At the same time, those who have spoken out against the proliferation of campus safe spaces and trigger warnings make the case that our need to feel safe — to feel comfortable — is inhibiting free speech and perhaps making us less tolerant. In 2017, political commentator Van Jones argued that a safe physical space, where an individual doesn’t fear assault or targeted hate speech, is necessary. “But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that ‘I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration,’” Jones said. “I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. . . I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back.”
At the very least, a culture of aggressive comfort-seeking can engender complicity. John F. Kennedy famously warned, during a Yale commencement address in 1962, that too often we enjoy “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” When we are challenged, made uncomfortable — as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other campaigns are doing — we snap back, circle the wagons, seek the comfort of people who won’t tell us we’re wrong. As Robin DiAngelo, the University of Washington academic who coined the term “white fragility,” put it, “[W]hite people have extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to our racial worldviews.” Taking that a step further, believing oneself to be in need of comfort, as a culture of comfort-seeking reinforces, can be a defensive mechanism that erases the individual’s responsibility and potential guilt.
Finally, it is not a leap to acknowledge that our love of comfort comes at a high environmental cost. This is where de Tocqueville went wrong; he suggested that a taste for material consumption in a democracy was largely a “restrained passion.” He wrote: “There is no question of building vast palaces, of vanquishing or deceiving nature, or of depleting the universe to better gratify the passions of one man. The goal is to . . . make life constantly more comfortable and more convenient, to forestall want and to satisfy the slightest need without effort and virtually without cost. Such goals are small, but the soul invests in them.” Such small goals take a tremendous amount of energy and resources to make comfort, from home heating and hot water to the cotton sweatpants we wear to the food we eat regardless of season. “We normally don’t think about that, because the comfort discourse is intended to lull us into feeling at ease,” observed Trentmann.
This helps explain why the idea that a bill for comfort — from SUVs to air conditioning — may be coming due with climate change is so threatening to many Americans on a personal and patriotic level.
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Yet some of us are able to forgo comfort for a larger cause. In the summer of 2001, warned that the electrical grid was overtaxed, Californians shut off enough personal power — air conditioning, lights, hair dryers — to avoid blackouts and reduce their use by 6 percent off the previous summer. “What we don’t know is why that is. How is it that some households have that flexibility, so they don’t go down the route of wanting always more comfort?” said Trentmann.
That flexibility — the willingness to forgo comfort in service of a larger goal — sounds a lot like the resilience and grit, those buzzwords for values that we’re supposed to be teaching our children. And it sounds like the positive changes that people are making all over America, in response to being made to question their own comfort and how it impacts others and the environment — turning up for marches, ditching single-use plastics, running for office. “In human cultures, you have a big range of where you might think you’re comfortable, and that range can change. In the last 100 years, we’ve gone up,” said Trentmann. “Within that, though, there is a spectrum. Some people live further down than others, and I see no reason why this may not change, when they’ve changed massively in the last 300 years.”
Correlation, of course, isn’t causation. Perhaps we’re seeking more comfort in more places because we’re not getting it from the places that genuinely matter. Perhaps comfort is a hollow category, so well-worn that it’s devoid of any real meaning.
Or perhaps comfort is a useful tool. Air conditioning, despite its negative impact on the environment, made industrial work in hot temperatures possible and office work bearable, meant that cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and Miami could attract citizens. High-temperature related deaths declined by 75 percent in the last century, due in large part to the availability of cooled air. Not owning a suit and tie is no longer a barrier to getting a good job. Pizza, America’s go-to comfort food, is really good. Americans may be big enough to contain both frontier individualists and comfort-seeking layabouts.
For as much as we take comfort, we are also capable of giving comfort. De Tocqueville made many observations, but this one is hopefully as true now as it was in 1835: “When an American calls on the cooperation of his fellow Americans, they seldom refuse.”
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.