Homeostasis is often conceptualized as the desire of an organism or system to stay the same. This is thought to be true whether one is talking about the body, the mind, a single individual, or an entire species. One of my favorite writers, George Leonard, puts it like this in his book Mastery:
“Every one of us resists significant change, no matter whether it’s for the worse or for the better. Our body, brain, and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed—and it’s a very good thing they do. Just think about it: if your body temperature moved up or down by 10 percent, you’d be in big trouble. The same thing applies to your blood-sugar level and to any number of other functions of your body.
This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis. It characterizes all self-regulating systems, from a bacterium to a frog to a human individual to a family to an organization to an entire culture—and it applies to psychological states and behavior as well as to physical functioning.”
It’s not surprising, then, that homeostasis has been used as a model to describe why making lasting change is so hard. This may be true acutely: If you’ve never exercised and start training, your body will fire all the warning signs that scream stop! But, as new research is beginning to show, this view of homeostasis is neither accurate, nor particularly helpful, over longer periods of time.
Antonio Damasio is a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy at the University of Southern California. He traces the beginnings of life, and the evolutionary processes they set in motion, to homeostasis. Only for Damasio, homeostasis is life’s innate tendency not just to endure, but also to prevail. The endurance part, writes Damasio, “is taken for granted without any specific reference or reverence whenever the evolution of any organism is considered.” But, he goes on, “the part of homeostasis that concerns ‘prevailing’ is more subtle and rarely acknowledged. It ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or species.”
In other words, homeostasis wants you to endure—but not necessarily exactly as you are now. It wants you to endure in a way that also maximizes the odds you’ll flourish in the future. The part of you that says maybe I should exercise more, maybe I should meditate, maybe I should quit smoking, maybe I should stop checking my phone, maybe I should take on that challenge even though I’m a little scared, is the part of your homeostatic drive that wants to prevail.
The enduring part of homeostasis initially resists change, even of the positive variety. But if you listen to the prevailing part—and override the enduring part in the short-term—in the long-term you’ll actually start to feel better. This is readily apparent in all the examples of behavior change mentioned above. It’s also what tends to happen when someone takes a new medication: At first they often feel worse (their body resisting the change, wanting to endure as it is) but then they start to feel better (their body realizing the medication will help them prevail).
This is an important shift in how we think about an age-old model representing change, or resistance to it. The old model of homeostasis (equilibrium) says change will always be hard. The new model of homeostasis (endure and prevail) helps you understand that at first a new change may be hard (enduring effect) but later it will become easier and self-reinforcing (prevailing effect).
This is very much in alignment with the latest science on behavior change, which shows that new behaviors become stickiest when you start to feel good as a result of them. The same goes for breaking bad behaviors. When you realize they are actually making you feel crappy—and not just intellectually but deep in your bones—you become more likely to stop. It follows that the best way to start a new positive behavior (or stop a negative one) is to give yourself a month or so to get over the part of homeostasis that is concerned with enduring, and then pay attention to how the new way of living is making you feel. If the change is truly helpful, you should start feeling good—homeostasis says so.
If you zoom out, this model of homeostasis predicts why even a lifelong addict will try, or at the very least wish to try, recovery again and again. It’s the deep-seated prevail part of homeostasis driving that desire.
This new way of thinking about homeostasis is quite hopeful. Homeostasis is a life-force pointed toward enduring and prevailing. It protects us from overdoing it today, but also directs us toward progress tomorrow.
Homeostasis is not about being static or equilibrium. It is about growth—only in a way that resists too much too soon. Homeostasis says that if you don’t overshoot the target, and if you expect and overcome initial resistance, you’re programmed for progress; you’re programmed to prevail. And that is a good thing.
(P.s., Homeostasis is aligned with another universal concept [the origin of which is also the beginning of life and evolution] that was the topic of my and Steve’s first book: stress + rest = growth. You can read more about that here.)