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 else1. 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…


Time and System Design

Note to self (sort of obvious).

In system design time is an assumption it’s not feedback.

The proof of this is trivial. No matter what your system does or even if it exists, time marches on. Time doesn’t depend on your system in any way.

For example, if I design some sort of whiz bang toothbrush and I build an alarm into it that goes off after five minutes indicating you can stop brushing then I’ve made and assumption that five minutes is enough time to brush. No portion of my system has actually measured how clean your teeth are. I’ve only built an assumption into the system.

It may have been an informed assumption. For example, studies may have shown that on average brushing for only three minutes is not enough for most people and brushing for six or seven minutes doesn’t substantially improve how clean your teeth may be. In the real world however there will be circumstances where three minutes was plenty of time to get your teeth clean or seven minutes wasn’t nearly long enough. Outcomes are distributed and I’m building an informed statistical assumption into the system, but it’s still an assumption.

There are a lot of assumptions we build into systems, not just time based. In the toothbrush example, what is clean enough? Is my definition of clean enough the same as yours? My assumption may be based on long term dental health. Yours may be based on how your smile looks and your breath smells. If I know about all of these needs, how do I prioritize which is most important? Your priorities may be different. When cleanliness was measured in our experiments, how was it measured? If it wasn’t comprehensive in some way then there’s room for error. System design is a bet and is very subject to judgement. The objective of system design is to create a system that works often enough. It’s not to create a system that works all of the time.

It’s good to remember this because I often forget and get frustrated when something doesn’t do what I expected it to do. To avoid some kinds of frustration it can be good to ask yourself, “Does this system seem to work most of the time for most people?” If the answer is yes, then let go of the frustration. For me I either need to change my expectations or I need to stop engaging that system.

Interestingly, we arrive yet again at the basic equation …

stress = expectation – reality

This is another reminder.