The Stress Equation

I’ve been pondering the stress equation for several years. I don’t know that it’s original to me, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else[1. I suppose I should try harder to find out.]. Structurally it’s pretty simple but it seems to provide some fairly profound insight into how humans behave. Here it is…

Stress = Reality – Expectations

Humans and perhaps all life spends its entire existence managing the system defined by this equation. It may in fact be the best definition of life available to us. Here are a few random, certainly not exhaustive, observations related to the stress equation.

  • When reality exceeds expectations you have positive stress or eustress (I’ll call it joy).
  • When expectations exceed reality you have negative stress or distress.
  • Both reality and expectation can be managed.
  • Both reality and expectation come with constraints that define a potential solution space.
  • You can, of course, have expectations about your stress, which is a wonderful opportunity for a feedback loop in either direction.
  • Stress is a control signal that drives change. If stress isn’t where you want it to be then you either adjust expectations or reality.
  • Stress is topical in that the scope of relevant expectations and the scope of relevant reality must be the same.
  • In general, the more negative the stress the more motivation to change.
  • If expectations are zero then positive stress (joy) is maximized for the scope and current circumstance and the desire to change is at a minimum. This kind of gets into the Hindu/Buddhist/Zen notion of detachment.
  • The stress equation applies to social entities of any size; from individuals to the species.
  • You personally may have little distress, but an entity that you’re a part of may have a great deal of distress. This drives collective action.

There are many other observations that can be derived from this. These observations benefited from the notions of entities (collections of people with a shared interest ranging from individuals to all of humanity) and action (the ability to and capability of causing change). Notions like these are likely worth expanding on at some future time.

There are also some interesting nuances to ponder. Here are a few.

  • If your expectations are high and they are matched by reality does that mean your joy is low or is it more complicated than that?
  • What are the ways the expectations and realities of intersecting entities interact?
  • This is not a closed system, there obviously are factors that drive both stress and reality.  Is there a meaningful structure that can be applied to these factors?

I dunno.  Random thoughts…

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