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Conservation of Stress - Scott Adams' Blog

Conservation of Stress

The common view is that sometimes you have stress and sometimes you don’t. But where does the stress go when you don’t have it?

My theory is that stress is a universal constant. If you have less of it at any given moment, then other people must be taking on more to balance things out. For example, let’s say you go on vacation. While you’re on the beach, your coworkers are trying to handle their own workload plus the projects you left behind. You haven’t reduced stress; you’ve simply transferred it to your coworkers. And if you work alone, as I do, you can frontload your stress to get ahead of deadlines, but you can’t reduce the total amount.

Suppose you have a non-injury accident in your car. You’re all stressed out, and the universe is temporarily out of balance. Then the tow truck shows up. He’s the happiest guy you’ve ever seen because he’s making a good profit from your misfortune. Soon the stress level at a local auto repair shop will go down because they will have a new customer. And the suppliers for that body shop will get paid, and so on down the line.

All of our institutions are set up to ensure the efficient balancing of stress across humans. Consider capitalism. Every sale of stock creates one winner and one loser. Every promotion leaves someone behind who is jealous and resentful. Every bid you win means more work.

On a monetary level, Capitalism isn’t a zero sum game. In principle, while the rich get richer, the poor can be getting less poor. But with wealth comes extra stress. As soon as you shed the stress of starving, you take on the stress of a higher level of responsibility. You can get rid of certain causes of stress, but you can’t get rid of stress itself. The universe makes sure that new stress always finds you.

Sports are designed to create as many losers as winners. The relief of victory is exactly matched by new stress in the losers.

Entertainment, such as a movie or TV show, is generally designed to generate stress in the viewer and then release it at the end. The total amount of stress balances out.

You can see this continuous rebalancing of stress in your own life. Every time you put some huge, hairy, stressful problem behind you, another appears as if from nowhere. The new source of stress might be a “good” one, as in planning for a wedding, or wondering how you will perform in a new job. But stress it is, nonetheless.

Moreover, in times when chance alone does not provide you with enough stress to replace what you had, you’ll do some dumbass thing to increase your own stress level. You’ll sign up for skydiving lessons, walk through the bad part of town, or insult your boss. Stress must be served.

Conservation of stress is another clue that we live in a programmed existence, subject to certain rules and limits established by the author of our reality. I say that because it is exactly how you would program such a world if you were the author. You wouldn’t let the characters in your world rest, as that would be somewhat pointless. You would make sure the environment provided a steady flow of stress so the characters could feel alive, and could fully exercise their personalities.

I realize that most of my readers believe reality is nothing more than an ever-evolving “dumb” universe. That’s a highly plausible view, if you like your explanations complicated. If you like a simpler explanation, you have The Boltzmann’s brain paradox:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann_brain

As a writer (sort of), I lean toward the more interesting notion that we’re a simulated (programmed) world left behind by advanced humanoids that shed their bodies billions of years ago. Our simulated world is the closest they could come to immortality. They were romantics, much like ourselves, and couldn’t stand the thought of being separated from their loved ones for eternity. So in our programmed little world, when we feel a special connection to another, it’s because we knew that person when we were real, and the program allows us to feel it again as if new. Thus, when you meet your soul mate, it is a reunion of sorts. And it will happen over and over, in each subsequent life the program provides for you.

Yes, I saw Inception yesterday. Now excuse me while I go spin a top.