Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Metastability: A Necessity For Happiness and Evolution

A New theory integrating positive psychology, physics and biology.
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to What Really Makes You Happy? by Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman

The phrase, “it’s all good” has always bugged me though really it shouldn’t.  Like any positive superlative it’s a useful exaggeration that purges negativity with absoluteness.  It’s no worse than calling everything totally awesome, saying you adored your French toast or declaring “it’s perfect” when you mean it’s just OK.  These are social lubricants, ways to keep people accentuating the positive in an anxious world.

Still, “It’s all good” explicitly argues for something I can’t accept. It’s not all good unless you define “good” so broadly that it covers “bad” too. If you allow yourself to define things that broadly it’s all French toast too.

But what if the word “all” doesn’t mean everything in the universe but all of the possibilities within a particular context: “In this situation I’ll be fine with whatever happens. It won’t freak me out, cause me despair, our paralyze me.”

I wrote here recently about my love of serious play, AKA flow in positive psychology, the intense joy of being seriously consumed by some playfully creative activity--a video game, art, dancing, playing music or sports, doing a job you love, or being eaten up by curiosity learning something new. 

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What makes serious play so joyful is a sense of overall safety, that your prospects of succeeding at it are good, but that not succeeding wouldn’t be bad either.  Within the limits of your effort’s possible outcomes, it’s all good.  It’s not all equally good, which is why you’re serious in it—you’ve got some standard you’re seriously trying to meet.  But you’re playful within it because not meeting the standard won’t kill you.  It’s like being a tightrope walker working with a net.  You seriously want to stay on the tightrope, but if you fall you’ll be OK so you’re willing to try varying your technique, playing with ways to get better and better at it.

Maybe some of us have enough confidence that we always feel like we’re working with a net.  Maybe some of us are so anxious that we never feel like we are.  For most of us it takes time and effort to feel comfortable enough in some game that we get the sweet balance of seriousness and play.

Time especially.  I’m a teacher and some days my classes suck. What makes teaching still a joy is a sense of overall confidence, called self-efficacy in positive psychology. I’ve taught well enough for long enough that I’m not keeping score by the class but by the aggregate of all my classes. 

As the song says, mama told me there’d be days like this, bad days among the good.  Overall it’s all good, and not because mama, the positive psychologists or the inspirational speakers told me it is, but because my longish teaching experience convinces my gut that though there are ups and downs, the ups prevail enough that I can afford to experiment, playing with variations that sometimes suck but sometimes evolve toward innovations that make the good better.   

I love it on bad days not just because tomorrow is another day either, but because there have already been lots of days, enough of them good. Our guts play a percentage game on things we’ve done for a while.

Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology speaks to this percentage game approach, saying for example that trauma early in life is more likely to cause depression because, when you’re younger, you’ve had fewer experiences so a trauma looms larger relative to the good. 

In parallel, a bad day teaching early on in my career threw me more.  With fewer teaching days under my belt, a bad day would be over-represented in the smaller pool of total teaching days.

Resilience can be cultivated, but mostly it’s a product of how long you’ve been at something.  More at bats; less anxiety when you strike out.  Less anxiety, more capacity for serious creative exploratory evolutionary play since striking out is an OK possibility too.

If you’re gut hasn’t learned from experience that all possible outcomes of an activity are good, can you convince yourself that they are anyway?  Albert Ellis, the pioneer behind cognitive psychology talks about how happier people mind their ABC’s (Adversity, Belief, Consequence) and particularly their B’s. If, for example you fail a test, don’t just leap to the consequent meaning that you’re a failure. Choose your beliefs carefully and lean toward a narrow interpretation, not over-generalizing the failure.  You failed a test?  That just means you failed a test.

Of course, leaning toward narrow interpretation can be dangerous, making people happier perhaps in the short run, but also more oblivious to the underlying patterns that would make them fail tests in the long run.  

And there are limits on our range of beliefs. Most of us know what it’s like to begin to suspect an undeniable pattern of failure. You can’t kid yourself into thinking, “hey, I just failed a test—no big deal, it’s all good.”  Perhaps you’ve been in a last-straw situation where one more failed test is going to trigger a consequence you really can’t help but dread.  You can’t feel playful then as though it’s all good.

And there should be limits on our range of beliefs. For the students’ sake, if every class I taught sucked, I hope I’d begin to believe I was a bad teacher.

Given our natural and useful limits on belief, I don’t believe that we can find serious play in everything we do.  Some of our activities are just serious, with little or no play because some possible outcomes aren’t going to feel good, however much we try to believe they are.

Still, we have some leeway in making an activity all good, for example asking a non-rhetorical “what’s the worst that could happen?” and conceiving of some way you can get back on your feet even if your worst-case scenario comes true. 

Physicists talk about certain systems as metastable, meaning that they have not one resting state but many. Overall, the system is stable in many positions. 

For example, picture a ball rolling down a ridged ramp. The ball having rolled all the way to the bottom would be stable and at rest, but it’s also stable resting inside any of the pockets formed by the ridges. 

I think of the arenas where I’m afforded serious play as metastable like that ridged ramp.  I’m on a roll trying to get to the bottom of things, trying to reach the resting state of ultimate success. My ramp is ridged and bumpy and I do get stalled along the way in ruts that keep me from ultimate success, and yet these ruts are all good too—they’re stable enough that I don’t freak out in them. It’s not as though all of the stable states on my ramp are equally good but overall I’m OK with landing in any of them.

And as a teacher I want to create a metastable environment for my students. Learning anything is like a bumpy ramp. Fear of falling short of ultimate success often paralyzes students.  If I want them to experience the serious play of learning I can’t afford to have them freaked out by a bad test score or a wrong answer in class. I need to uphold standards but still it’s got to feel all good enough or they won’t be game to trying to evolve and learn anymore.

There’s a connection here not just to physics but to evolutionary science. We think of evolution as how things change, but really it’s much more about how living systems are peculiar in their ability to stay the same, to keep on keeping on, rebuilding themselves day after day, generation after generation.  Organisms evolve and learn by varying within a stable enough context that they can survive evolution's trial and error process. Of course some errors can kill you, or terminate a whole lineage. But for any lineage to survive it must be something of a metastable platform on which adaptations can accumulate. It has to be stable enough to persist but metastable (plastic or flexible) enough to allow trial and error. The origins of life is the origin of serious play on metastable platforms where, in our narrow sense, it’s all good. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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