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The Power of Constraints to Protect Against Existential Anxiety

I’ve written about constraints in the past (some links are below) but I think the concept is becoming increasingly important.

Here’s why: In a world where technology is accelerating, you have access to what, for all intents and purposes, is infinity in more areas of your life. A few examples include dating apps (endless potential matches); flexible work schedules (endless time—until you die, that is—to do your work); streaming music or television (endless options for listening or watching); and, of course, health and fitness (endless approaches and programs for movement, diet, sleep, and everything in between).

The problem is a simple yet, I think, profound one: when you are up against infinity it is very easy to convince yourself that there is something better out there, because there almost certainly is something better out there. But this ensures you never stick with anything for long enough to derive full benefit and meaning. You are constantly in seeking mode instead of practicing or doing mode.

Of the seven billion people in the world is someone a better match than your new dating partner? Any math mathematician wouldn’t bat an eye before saying, “Of course! Math!” The same goes for all the other examples given above. Why listen to this song I kind-of like when I could hit the next button and maybe find a song I really like?! Why stop working to make plans with friends, relax, pray, or go for a walk when I could keep working and just do that stuff later? You get the point.

It is not long before something that is seemingly a positive (infinity) becomes a negative. Some philosophers call the resulting anxiety the dizziness of freedom: there is always something more or better you could be doing. It doesn’t help that consumerism feeds off this anxiety by offering up infinite products and services, all of which promise to be better than what you are currently doing. You wouldn’t be wrong to say the dizziness of freedom is the fuel for consumerism.

Humans evolved in small bands of between 10 and 150 people. Our communication was limited to oral stories. Our tools were limited to what we could find and shape with our barehands. Our entertainment was limited to what we could do together, in real time. Now are we, as a species, in a much better spot than we were thousands of years ago? I think so. Less disease and longer life are good things. But I am not so sure that the human brain is set-up for success amidst infinity. Wheres we once suffered from dysentery, a disease of too little (sanitation) technology, now we suffer from anxiety, a disease, at least partly, of too much everything. And this is where constraints, or artificial boundaries, can help. When we use constraints we go from infinity to something that is more manageable. We go from seeking the better bet to being where we are and working with what we’ve got.

As technology accelerates we will have more situations analogous to dating—you once were naturally constrained to your tribe, then school, then city, then state; but now, you can date basically anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Experiencing infinity in more areas of our lives means that we will need to set appropriate constraints to offset the resulting anxiety, the dizziness of complete and total freedom.

Brad

(As promised, other writing on constraints: Discipline is Freedom, Which Means Constraints Are Too; The Limits of Growth and When Smaller is Better; What A Simple Fitness Routine Can Teach You About Life.)

3 Comments

  1. Dave Bembo on July 9, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    Great stuff! I always enjoy the Growth Equation pieces and often follow up by reading one or more of the links. This one was right on the money and really resonated for me. In professional life I’m often faced with “this cookie or no cookie” type decisions but I think I’m wired to want to review a row of cookie options, preferably each with a datasheet…..

  2. Read : 2021-07-19 | thegraywolff on July 19, 2021 at 10:51 am

    […] “The power of constraints to protect against existential anxiety” by Brad Stulberg (The Growth Equation, 2021-07-12). “[T]hose wise restraints that set men free”. […]

  3. Joseph Masters on August 9, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    I love the fact there is no concerete advice in this article – it is simply a description of the problem many of us are facing. Just to hear this summarised, better than I could have put it myself, was on its own quite helpful. I have been suffering from “overwhelming freedom of choice” for a while, to have an ancknowledgement that this is not a problem unique to me was helpful. Just hearing someone else voice this out has also helped put my own problems into perspective a bit.

    Thanks.

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