Stable systems and managing expectations

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about how civilizations in the past fell not because of one error in judgement, but because of multiple such errors. For instance, many empires in ancient China fell because they were not receptive to scientific and military advances from the outside, the bureaucracy was stifled, etc. I have often returned to thinking about this simple observation, and how it relates to much of the world around us.

One way of re-phrasing what Harari was trying to say is that many systems around us are stable. They can absorb small shocks or errors, and still remain relatively unchanged. It takes many errors and misjudgments to completely wreck them. For instance, when we drive on the road, we are generally sensitive to the drivers around us, even if we’re not actively paying attention. If a car suddenly serves into our lane, we will almost involuntary slam our brakes and try to control the outcome. Most times, we will able to do so successfully. However, if we’re intoxicated while behind the wheel, our reaction time will suffer, and we will crash into that car. Hence, just being intoxicated or having a car swerve right into your lane are not by themselves enough to get you into a car accident. Both of these conditions have to come together in order for you to have a decent chance of crashing your car. In other words, when on the road, you’re a stable system. It will take multiple misjudgments on your part or that of others to wreck your vehicle.

Can we also study anger and anxiety from a systems perspective? Imagine that you’re having a bad day at work. Your boss is breathing down your neck for no fault of yours, and the heater has also started malfunctioning, causing you to freeze in your seat for the most of the day. Although this sure will put a damper on your mood, this in itself is generally not enough to make you scream in agony. However, if on your drive back home you get into a fender bender, and on reaching home you realize that there is no electricity and most of the food in the refrigerator has gone bad, you will probably have lost it and will lash out at anyone or anything. It took multiple unfortunate circumstances or “errors” to take you from a sullen face to black rage. If on returning home from work you find your favorite sandwich is waiting for you in the refrigerator, you will soon return to normal. Good food has partially compensated for the bad day at work, and things are alright again.

Hence, although I find myself getting anxious and angry every now at then for seemingly trivial reasons, I have now started thinking that it is a miracle that I don’t get angry or anxious more often. One bad thing is generally not enough to destroy my peace if other things are going well in my life. It is only when bad things line up- car malfunctioning, arguments with friends, problems at home- that I find myself losing my cool. There is probably an evolutionary advantage to not losing your composure over just one thing going wrong. Hence, our moods have evolved to become more stable over eons. It is only when multiple things go wrong that we don’t quite know what to do or who to blame.

Now a small digression: why does it sometimes seem like everything is going wrong for us all at the same time? When we have a bad day at work, we hope that we will at least get good food at home to compensate for it. We hope that we can relax with our partner, tell them about our problems, and that they will soon utter some relaxing words which will make our miseries go away. Hence, our expectations from our life become even more demanding than before. We don’t just want an ordinary day. We want a fantastic day after this in order to forget our troubles. When this does not happen, we get even more dejected, and think that along with a bad boss, we also have an unsympathetic partner and a complete lack of good food in our lives. Hence, one “error” in our life induces us to make narrow, unrealistic expectations in our lives, and when they’re not met, we will that everything is going wrong with us.

So far so good. Our existences are sort-of stable. However, we must ask the following question: how can one become even more stable? Perhaps keep our composure even when very many things go wrong? I struggle with this question because I may have slight anxiety issues. Driving on the road is a struggle because I become nervous when there are cars around me. Even the slightest disturbance when I am working often disturbs my calm. When I’m watching TV, if someone talks to me, I get distracted and irritable. I think all this may be because I only expect to have an easy drive with very few cars around me, complete silence when I work, and no one talking to me when I watch TV. Hence, when these expectations are proved wrong, I get nervous and irritable as I can no longer control my surroundings.

Yesterday, while driving in seemingly erratic conditions, I tried to calm my nerves by trying to expand my range of expectations. I assigned small probabilities to multiple things that could go wrong. Perhaps a car would come and crash against me. Perhaps a car will swerve wildly into my lane. Perhaps I will hit an animal. Of course, thinking about all these possibilities made me mentally prepared to deal with such eventualities. If I do hit an animal, because I had already assigned a non-zero probability to it, I will recover from shock much more quickly, and will probably be able to deal with the situation much better.

This single act of thinking about eventualities calmed my nerves within a few minutes, and I had the rarest of experiences- an enjoyable drive back home, even amongst erratic drivers and the general highway craziness.

Hence, I would like to make the hypothesis that a lot of anxiety and anger may stem from the fact that our range of expectations is often too narrow. Hence, when reality doesn’t meet our very narrow expectations, we lose control of our peace of mind and the situation. If we spend time broadening our range of expectations, we will start expecting in advance more things that happen to us in real life, reducing shock, and hence anxiety in the process.

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Graduate student

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