Does less discomfort create well being?

The increasing danger of a design approach based on removing pain points

Andy Sontag
5 min readOct 4, 2023

Light without shadow? Frictionless without friction? Comfort without discomfort?

White noise machines, noise canceling headphones, and more have made it easier to live without unpleasant noises. But as a recent Wired article: It’s Time to Let the Noisy World Back In points out, that’s not necessarily a good thing. While noise-canceling devices and comfort-driven innovations offer respite from discomfort, they may inadvertently heighten our sensitivity to it over time. Lauren Larson writes:

“It wasn’t so much actual noises that kept me up as the expectation of noises… though my devices had been effectively masking noise, they hadn’t made me any better equipped to stay calm and focused when noises intruded.”

When people block out unpleasant noises, the bodies response is to make people more sensitive to unpleasant noises. A study by Silia Vitorato from 2023 found that in the UK 1 in 5 adults may have Misophonia - experiencing significant negative responses to sounds.

Building on this topic, but taking a wider perspective is the recent book: Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke. She issues a strong sociological critique of the systemic, long-term impacts that she has seen and researched of a design practice based on flooding people with dopamine — and thus taking out discomfort. She writes that essentially when we experience less pain, it then takes less pain to cause us discomfort. She calls for practices such as taking cold showers, or winter bathing to resent the discomfort / comfort slider in our brains.

“The relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, leads to pain… The reason we’re all so miserable may be because we’re working so hard to avoid being miserable.”

— Anna Lembke

Another example of a self-defeating approach to designing for well-being is embedded in the mindset of those designing smart beds. The problem with this bed is not the bed itself. The problem is that the experience of the bed is not made by the bed, but by the person sleeping in it. The problem is the assumptions embedded in the design.

An example of self-defeating approach to designing for well-being.

The idea that just removing friction increases well being, does not take into consideration the degree to which people make their own experience.

The reduction of discomfort will always be temporary, unless it comes from inside the user. A more ‘sustainable’ approach to designing the discomfort out of sleep could be to design a meditation experience, that would change the way someone would experience their bed. If we as designers do not go to the root causes of problems, we risk creating hamster wheels of suffering.

Another example of the pitfalls of removing friction is the incremental changes to Google that has made to the user experience of searching for information. Through ‘optimizing the user experience’ Google has become less focused on the exploration of searching the internet and comparing different sources, and more focused on the frictionless experience of giving answers faster. The Wired article: Google Search Is Quietly Damaging Democracy has some alarming research about the long term, systemic impacts that are the culmination of iterative human centered design decisions.

Google Search Is Quietly Damaging Democracy: A series of incremental changes over the years has transformed the tool from an explorative search function to one that is ripe for deception. Full article here.

We need a new generation of designers that are wiling to embrace the fullness of the lived experience — the comfortable and uncomfortable. I am so lucky to have worked with Lais Glük. She has made a model, The Waves model for using discomfort as a fuel for comfort and ultimately transformation. The idea is to create a model for designing experiences that can embraces the fullness of the human experience. The Waves model can help designers integrate moments of discomfort, which becomes especially important when we aim to design a transformational experience. But the awareness of the need to integrate discomfort into the way we design will only become more important in the coming years, as powerful technologies will offer more and more opportunities to optimize our environments.

We can not accept a vision for technology that is based on removing friction. We need the friction to be able to experience the ‘frictionless’. Let us lean into the fullness of the human experience.

“I urge you to find a way to immerse yourself fully in the life that you’ve been given. To stop running from whatever you’re trying to escape, and instead to stop, and turn, and face whatever it is. Then I dare you to walk toward it.”

— Anna Lembke

In conclusion, the pursuit of comfort and the elimination of discomfort in our lives has become an increasingly prevalent design approach. This approach will only accelerate in the coming years fueled by advances in technology and our desire to control our sensory environments.

When we constantly seek to eliminate discomfort, we paradoxically make ourselves more susceptible to it. The design of products and experiences should not solely focus on eliminating friction and discomfort but should also consider the role of the individual in shaping their own experiences.

True well-being cannot be achieved solely through design of the external world, but must come from within the user.

Only by leaning into the fullness of the human experience can we truly achieve lasting well-being and design a better future for ourselves and the generations to come.



Andy Sontag

Designing experience that enable people and relationships to grow ☀️ // Kaospilot Experience Design: