Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 15: Control (or, Why Waiting for a Late Bus Feels Like Being Trapped on a Desert Island—or a Stalled Container Ship)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

Port of Rotterdam

Remember that monkey I wrote about in my first Comfort Crash Course post? The one who taught me the neurological function behind my cravings? Well, he’s back. But this time, it’s not espresso, or a run, or berries that call me. No, I conquered those cravings almost two weeks ago.

This time, it’s land.

I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing land for the first time in over a week. As we sailed through the English Channel at sunset, with the twinkling lights of France on one side and the white cliffs of Dover on the other, I was at first filled with the familiar mixture of excitement and sadness that always comes at the end of a journey.

But now that sadness is gone. I’ve had my time at sea. I can almost feel the cobblestones under my feet. And I want off this boat. Now.

I have a feeling I wouldn’t be this insistent if the boat were still moving and I felt like we were somehow gaining ground and getting closer to my goal. But a few days ago the captain informed me that the ship’s schedule had changed. It is no longer going to Germany (ah, the joys of offbeat travel); I am instead to get off in the Netherlands and take a train.

First, however, we must wait for our turn at the port, which means that my fifteen days of confronting comfort has turned into sixteen. So as I write this post, we are stopped dead in the water and I am looking out across about five miles of water at Rotterdam. If I didn’t have so much luggage, I could probably swim there.

It’s like dangling a doughnut in front of a dieter whose mouth is wired shut.

In 1989 University of Wisconsin psychologist Carole Ryff published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that offers a hint as to why this wait is so painfully aggravating.

In “Happiness Is Everything, or Is It? Explorations on the Meaning of Psychological Well-Being,” Ryff set out to establish the dimensions that are necessary to measure and analyze levels of well-being. What, she asked, constitutes positive psychological functioning? She defined six dimensions of well-being, which laid the groundwork for her later studies into the same topic. Today I did a mental checklist of them, and discovered the root of my problem. The list went like this:

Self-acceptance: CHECK.
Positive relations with others: CHECK.
Autonomy: CHECK.
Purpose in life: CHECK.
Personal growth: currently DOUBLE CHECK.


Environmental mastery: X.

“Environmental mastery: The individual’s ability to choose or create environments suitable to his or her psychic conditions is defined as a characteristic of mental health,” Ryff writes in the paper’s introduction.

She later goes on to report that this mastery is not only a characteristic of mental health, but is one of the most important characteristics: “Self-acceptance and environmental mastery were strongly associated with measures of life satisfaction, affect balance, self-esteem, and morale, thereby indicating clear linkages between theory-guided components of well-being and those evident in current empirical studies.”

At the moment, I am completely incapable of choosing or creating environments suitable to my psychic conditions. Which means that, in short, it’s not just the monkey-like craving of life on land that’s getting to me. It’s the lack of control I have over my ability to get there.

Being temporarily held hostage by a shipping schedule is not the end of the world, of course. But unlike my being stuck on this boat, these frustrating situations occur every day in city life. And if we apply this concept to the city, it offers a powerful lesson.

It explains why we can be overwhelmed by a feeling of joy and freedom behind the wheel of a car on a country road but boil over with frustration in that same vehicle when we’re stuck in a traffic jam. Or why we’re content to sit on a bus for 45 minutes but tap our feet impatiently when we’re waiting at the stop because it’s running five minutes late. They are situations and environments over which we have no control.

It leaves me wondering: Is it possible to create city systems that increase private individuals’ ability to master their environments without diminishing public comfort? Can individual and collective environmental mastery work hand in hand on a city level?

As I continue to stare helplessly through my window at the smokestacks of Rotterdam’s industrial shoreline, I invite your thoughts.

Photo: Port of Rotterdam by oaø via Flickr.

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.

  • Ucce A.

    Tagen fünfzehn! Whew! “The Netherlands? I’ll take it!” After 15 days on a ship I’m sure you wouldn’t mind swimming the final 10 yards to shore.

    In response to your question about individual and communal mastery working collectively: Is it safe to say that cities already make that attempt? I think that an attempt to increase individual environmental mastery inevitably decreases public comfort, making the Public, well…less Public and more focused on Individuals.

    The traffic jam happens against our will. Imagine if you were on that ship ride against your will (insert imagery of distasteful time in American History here). Though what’s notable is that the anticipation to leave the ship would be similar because of the conditions of the ship ride in comparison to freedom. In reference to the bus stop situation: We carry our own schedules. If we anticipate the bus arriving in 5 minutes, our mentality/body is only prepared for a 5 min wait but when we know that our bus will be 10 min late, we’ll adjust our comfort schedule to be prepared. Going back to traffic, it seems we can never be prepared for that. Most people go through that same routine everyday – traffic and still can’t deal with it. Trying to “beat traffic” when they know that they haven’t a shot. It’s the individual who needs to adhere to, and find comfort within, the community but maybe we could explore a system that would gradually get them there.

    Great job Christine! Congratulations!

    • Christine McLaren

      Okay – so what if the people who were frustrated by the late bus then had the power to re-jig the bus system to run more efficiently and on time? If they had more control over the system on a hands-on level?