Feb 152012

Jordan Peterson spoke at TEDxToronto. He needed a better introduction to his ideas so I thought I’d write it up.

One of the biggest and lasting changes in the way I see the world has been to integrate Jordan Peterson’s idea of order and chaos. If you want to understand yourself, the world and me, it’s fundamental that you understand this distinction.

Order is a place or situation or state where things are predictable. You’re on solid ground and you know what will happen next. Too much order and this state can become boring, restrictive or even repressive. Too little order and there’s not enough structure for anything to exist at all. The right amount of order though, allows you to relax and feel comfortable (activation of the parasympathetic nervous system–sleep/relax/digest/rebuild system).

Chaos is state or place where things are unpredictable and uncertain. They are outside or under the little islands of order we build around us. We don’t know that’s going to happen next, and that can make chaos quite thrilling. But chaos can also be destructive as well as creative. You are most interested when there’s just the right amount of chaos—maybe even excited. Too much chaos and you are overwhelmed, anxious and afraid (activation of the sympathetic nervous system–fight/flight system).

Myths and old stories are often about the relationship between order and chaos, and something that converts one into the other–usually the hero. Order is often represented as some sort of “safe place” often enclosed by boundaries. The fort, the walled city, the island, the house/home we live in, the village in the clearing surrounded by dark forests. Outside the little speck of order, there is great chaos. This can be the darkened forest, space, the desert, the ocean or the city outside your house.

In Narrative

Order and chaos also show up in stories all the time, especially very popular stories that appeal to a lot of people because they have a mythic substructure. Take The Dark Knight, for example, or superheroes in general. They are our modern myths—our Hercules, Samson or Thor. The Dark Knight made over a billion dollars. $1,001,921,825. I’ve checked and rechecked this figure and it remains a shitload of money. Why would millions of people pay to see a man in a silly costume beat up another deranged man with facepaint and scars? The spectacle certainly has something to do with it, but there’s also the dynamic of order and chaos. The Joker says to Harvey Dent in the hospital room:

“It’s a schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I do best-I took your plan and turned it on itself. Look what I have done to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple bullets. Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.”

Then Harvey Dent flips a coin to determine if he’ll kill The Joker.

The hero tends to be a creature in between order and chaos. He converts chaos into order and often revitalizes the culture or community he is coming from, but often he cannot stay in that community because he is tainted by chaos. The cowboy must ride away into the sunset from the town he just saved and Batman must be labelled a criminal and never accepted by the society he defends. In other stories, the hero returns to revitalize the community and is accepted at the top ranks of it. He jumps from being the peasant to marrying the princess and becoming the next king after slaying the dragon of chaos.

These stories teach us how to react to chaos–to the unknown. With courage and resolute strength. Looking fear in the eye and battling to the last breath. A good story or myth contains this element of battling chaos or battling order–especially a tyrannical, repressive one–think V for Vendetta, 1984 or Robin Hood, or your parents when you were a teenager.

In Religion

This interplay between order and chaos shows up in religions all the time, especially since religions are a collection of various myths. The yin-yang symbol is the representation of order and chaos, and only in the harmonious balance between them is some sort of perfection achieved. There is a speck of one in the other with the black dot in the white and white dot in the black.

Take the story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah is going along in order and the totality of reality commands him to do something. He seeks to escape from it and flees from safe and dry land onto the oceans. A great storm comes and threatens the ship. The crew throw him overboard at which point he’s swallowed by a giant whale and taken deep underwater until he prays and is let back on onto dry land to fulfill God’s command.

If you take this story literally, you’ll find yourself at odds with a lot of facts. Whales don’t generally eat people nor can you survive in the belly of a whale. Ancient people had no idea what a whale looked like so the depictions of the whale look reptilian. But through the lens of order and chaos you get a much clearer understanding—and a lesson!

Have you ever had an experience when you’re going along and feeling fine but then something happens to throw you completely off-balance? Maybe your parents got divorced, maybe you had a major breakup, maybe you failed a year of school, maybe you broke your leg or someone close to you died. Unexpected and unplanned things happened and you felt like you were drowning and didn’t know when the clouds would ever part. But one day, over time, you woke up and things seemed less dark. Eventually, you even noticed that the sun had broken through the clouds of your life and you felt like you were on solid ground again. This is an experience everyone who’s lived at all has had and that’s the experience this story of Jonah talks about. That’s why this tale has been repeated for over four thousand years—because it says something true about the nature of human existence.

Additionally this story gives a lesson: listen to the decrees of the totality of reality otherwise risk falling into chaos.

In Politics

Democrats and Republicans in the US tend to align to these two mythological positions. Chaos loving democrats run campaigns based on “change” (perhaps some that we can believe in) while Republicans espouse safety, security and order which tends to come from conservatism.

In Psychology

Psychologists have found out that people’s identity is fundamentally a narrative. What links you now to the 7 years old you? Every single one of your cells has been replaced so your body is not the same. But you tell a story that links you to who you are today. Jung once said that we are all living out a myth and it’s a really good idea to figure out what your story is, because it could be one that doesn’t end well for you. Maybe it’s a story of safety and security that your parents want you to live out by becoming an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor, but it’s too much order and boring. Not having a compelling story to live out, though, can cause feelings of living a life that has no meaning. Not the only cause, but one of the most prevalent, especially in the university years.

So, what creates a life of excitement? The feeling of battling chaos (or order) and succeeding—even if slowly. It can also be the excitement of expanding the realm of order and knowledge. The right balance and timing of order and chaos in your life. A compelling story that provides context and meaning for your actions today. You of course need more than this, but this is the big stuff.

More technically, Dan Seigal makes a compelling argument in his book in Mindsight, that if you take almost every psychological disorder you find either an excess of chaos or an excess of order.

In Dynamical Systems Theory

I believe order and chaos represent a particular kind of dynamical system and since our world is infested by dynamical systems; myths and stories teach us how to deal with them. Evolution, for example, is the interplay between chaos and order. Chaos generates new possibilities through mutations and the like. Order selects within the possibilities through environmental, social and sexual pressures. This process keeps going back and forth in order to continually produce organisms fitted for a particular time and place. There is no single definition of “fitness”. The biggest or strongest don’t always win and are often at a detriment (think dinosaurs).

In Personality Transformation

Similarly, human personalities transform through contact with chaos. Things go wrong and we wake up. The unexpected happens and you’re forced to rethink your life, how you interact with it and what your future will be. You fail a test and maybe that means you fail the course and maybe that means your GPA is very low and maybe that makes you wonder if you’re a smart person at all and maybe if you’re not a smart person than you can’t be a success in life and maybe that means that people will always judge and look down upon you. But after dealing with all this, maybe you wake up and realize that what people try to convince you is important in life isn’t actually important, so you don’t worry as much about climbing some social ladder anymore and impressing people, and because your goals are different, your methods become different, too, and you start taking only interesting courses and change majors to something that actually interests you (and perhaps has just the right amount of chaos in it to be interesting) and maybe you turn getting good grades with the minimum work possible into a fun game and figure out ways to hack grades and start doing really well in school anyway.

My old personality died and a new one arose from the ashes, like a Pheonix, and this new one is robust to this sort of chaos.


Our bodies evolved for those two “realities” of order and chaos. We parse up the world as being made up of objects because of the very powerful lenses provided us by the enlightenment and the success of physics. But the world is more complicated than that and has an infinite ways of looking at it (meaning it is chaos) and we’re constantly adjusting the way we look at the world (converting it into order). The other big change I’ve been making is recognizing that objects don’t end at their boundaries. I don’t end at my skin. I’m a combination of my past, my future, my friends, my work, my peace, even the weather and how you see me today is dependent on all those things.

Feb 062012

I argue stressing yourself out can be good for you in this paper. I wrote it for my Positive Psychology class. Positive Psychology is the study of how to improve lives of everyone including the mentally ill rather than just fix the broken and ill minds that the rest of psychology is focused on. This paper was obviously inspired by my interest in personal development. Tim Ferriss was the first person to introduce me to the idea of eustress vs distress but that reference doesn’t work in an academic paper, so I’m crediting him here. Enjoy! You can contact me and lemme know what you think!

Distress vs. Eustress

The story of stress starts with a researcher who was extraordinarily bad at handling rats. Stress as a concept was imported from physics by Walter Cannon into physiology, though the landmark experiments were done by the bad rat-handler, Hans Selye. Selye ran an experiment in which he attempted to inject rats daily with an ovarian extract to determine its function. Unfortunately, he would often try to inject the rats, miss, drop them, spend half the morning chasing the rats around the room, flailing with a broom to get them out from behind a sink, and so on. After a few months of this, the rats had peptic ulcers, greatly enlarged adrenal glands and shrunken immune tissues. Intrigued, he ran another experiment that injected a control group with saline with the same level of finesse. At the end of the experiment, the control group had similar peptic ulcers and other signs of stress. Thus, he discovered some of the effects of prolonged stress. (Selye, 1982).

Selye was also the first person to differentiate stress into eustress and distress (Selye, 1975). Distress is what we are familiar with under the term “stress”, however eustress is a different beast altogether. Eustress is positive stress. They both cause activation of the sympathetic nervous system which causes the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to go up and the body to become ready for fight or flight (though the situation is more complicated than that). Subjectively, distress is perceived as anxiety-producing while eustress is often perceived as exciting. This difference exists despite the fact that the physiological systems are the same, though the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is often lower in eustress than distress for the same level of stressor (Sapolsky, 2004).

Physiologists and endocrinologists have done an extraordinary job of discovering the benefits of eustress and the negatives of distress. Eustress such as excersize, sex, etc, helps increase functioning, prolongs life, increases life satisfaction and is often associated with “being challenged”. Prolonged distress, however, has been linked to a lot of negative consequences, including cardiovascular and heart disease (stressed monkeys had heart attacks, even the ones on low-fat diets), reduced immune function and just feeling terrible all the time (Sapolsky, 2004). However, what is a distressing event or activity and what is a eustressing one? Why will running every day for an hour for ten years increase life span while running from a bear for an hour every day will greatly decrease life span? Why is it that something one person finds distressing (e.g. a roller coaster ride) another person is willing to pay for?

The answer lies in what triggers the stress response. It is in the mind. Since physiologists are averse to anything as touchy-feely as the mind, the role of determining stress triggers falls to psychology. There are some interesting correlates. Some landmark studies have been about the difference between eustress and distress without being named as being about it. Such as the classic Schachter-Singer experiment (Schachter & Singer, 1962) and the “HighBridge” experiment (Dutton & Aron, 1974). What these studies indicated was that there is a dynamic relationship between the physiological response and the emotional-cognitive one, where one may influence the other and feedback to influence the first. This helps provide the basis for the success of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapies involving the technique of reframing. It is thus possible to reframe anxiety and nervousness to become excitement and readiness for action, and distress into eustress (in certain circumstances). A different stress response is activated (one with more glucocorticoids) when a creature has fallen into “learned helplessness” and more of the prolonged negative effects of stress come from glucocorticoid exposure (see Sapolsky, 2004 for review).

Distress into Eustress

A lot of psychological research (and positive psychological research) is focused on how people cope with distress. Concepts such as resilience, trauma-coping, and others are about distress and successfully coping with it without falling into depression or learned helplessness. However, what if events were not interpreted as being distressing but rather eustressing in the first place? What if people pursued positive eustress or even slight distress voluntarily? The positive benefits of pursuing eustress are rarely mentioned by that name. For example, the extensive literature on goal-setting is about eustress—about setting goals that push us out of our comfort zones, but the two terms are rarely mentioned in conjunction with each other (Sheldon, Kasser, Smith & Share, 2002). What if someone decided voluntarily to place themselves in stressful situations and learned to cope with each successively difficult challenge, such as how video game levels are structured? We will return to this question soon.

How does one produce psychological eustress and its benefits? Inspiration to answer this question on this comes from two fronts: the study of myths and Russian psychology. Russian psychology starts with the axiomatic assumption that, anxiety is the basic state of creatures and we learn to be calm, whereas Western psychology starts with the assumption that calmness is the fundamental state and we learn to be afraid or anxious. The Russian view is supported by the simple fact that the amygdala, which generates anxiety, is always on but inhibited (Peterson, 1999).

Fair enough, but what causes anxiety? Anxiety and the stress-response is a sort of “catch-all” phenomena that seems to occur often in cases of uncertainty, and especially uncertainty about negative events (uncertainty about positive events is often anticipation and excitement—such as a lottery ticket). The class of things or situations or states or consequences that generate anxiety might be referred to as “chaos”, which is a central theme in many myths. Chaos refers to change, the generative principle that creates, the uncertain, the unknown, and the multi-faceted. Many of the most popular myths are about the interplay between chaos, order, and the thing that mediates between the two (often referred to as the hero—or the virtual governor in dynamical systems theory). “Order” is the state or situation where calmness reigns. “Chaos” and “order” map easily onto the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system respectively, which are setup in an opponent processing manner much like order and chaos.

Well, what does the hero do in myths? The hero decides to go out to face chaos voluntarily and face the things that cause the hero anxiety and fear. However, the hero cannot go and face the greatest anxiety-provoking thing out there immediately and must instead fight lesser monsters to work up to fighting and defeating the greatest monster of them all. Sometimes the hero will foolishly attempt to attack the strongest monster immediately, but run away when the challenge appears too great, but returns to fight eventually. This is often referred to as a “first flight of the hero”.

There are a few key things about this archetypal story. The first is that this process must be engaged in voluntarily. The second is this has to be done in stages, where the first action is just outside the comfort zone of the hero and after successfully confronting the first monster, the hero’s comfort zone expands and can now comfortably face monsters of the same difficulty. This is, in some way, boring, so the hero must next fight a monster that was previously too far out of his comfort zone but after the first monster, is just outside the new, expanded comfort zone. Why else do sequels to movies always up the stakes, that is, first the hero saves theUnited States, and then the world? (Peterson, 1999)

We know these two key things to be true from treatment of phobias using exposure therapy. If you take someone with a fear of elevators and throw them into an elevator, they will likely have a nervous breakdown. However, if they decide they want to get over this fear and voluntarily face chaos, then they are much more likely to overcome the phobia. Thus, exposing yourself to what you fear voluntarily is important for eustress and also growth as a person. Another stream of research which provides validity for this idea of voluntary exposure to chaos comes from the work of James Pennebaker (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986), which involves facing trauma and converting it to order by expressing it in words. This has shown great effectiveness in terms of increasing both physical and mental health.

It appears that human beings may even be built to seek a certain amount of chaos in the form of novelty. A bit of chaos or change is interesting and too much order is boring. It appears that physiologically, excitement and anxiety or nervousness seem to be very similar. What is the difference between the two? It appears that the difference arises from how the situation is assessed. Schachter & Singer (1962)’s experiment indicates this, as do the challenge/threat appraisal experiments (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey & Leitten, 1993).

This is where this discussion parts ways with Richard Lazarus (1984) and most modern psychology textbooks. Lazarus envisioned eustress and distress being along the same dimension, where a little bit of stress is perceived as beneficial and more than that point is perceived as distressing. This is very similar to the Yerkes–Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). However, this is a simplistic understanding of the issue in which other factors are important for perceiving a situation or activity as exciting or distressing and at least one of them is cognitive appraisal of the situation as demonstrated by the challenge/threat appraisal experiments (Tomakaa, Blascovicha, Kelseyb & Leitten, 1993). Personality factors are also important which includes a personal tolerance for uncertainty and chaos (often measured by sensation-seeking, risk-seeking, tolerance of ambiguity or tolerance of uncertainty scales). This personal tolerance is likely based on two things: a person’s optimal ratio of certainty to uncertainty (order to chaos) in their life, and the current balance of certainty to uncertainty in their life. Too much certainty (order) and life becomes boring and stale without much growth, so a bit of uncertainty brings excitement back into life. Too much uncertainty (chaos) and life becomes stressful and overwhelming. Chaos carries an additional problem: it is not only the unknown but also that which is without pattern and predictability. As pattern seeking machines, most creatures abhor being in situations without any predictability, where cause-effect relations are inconsistent (a good way to destroy a child is to punish and reward them unpredictably) and no stories can be made. In extreme cases, too much uncertainty and inability to discern any patterns in an environment can lead to “experimental neurosis” or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is often treated through exposure therapy (Rothbaum & Schwartz, 2002).

So, we have a new prescription: a life well-lived involves eustress and voluntarily exposing ourselves to small amounts of distress and anxiety over time. Colloquially this referred to as “challenging yourself” or “pushing yourself out of your comfort zone”. By exposing oneself to one level of difficulty of trauma and learning to cope, perhaps in the future, an unintentional trauma of the same difficulty will be dealt with more effectively. Thus, a lifestyle of exposing oneself to controlled doses of ever increasing stress (though it is not necessarily increasing from a personal perspective) may have a preventative role towards future trauma by increasing one’s coping resources.

Suffering as transformative is an ancient idea as summed up beautifully by Tedeschi & Calhoun (2004):

The general understanding that suffering and distress can be possible sources of positive change is thousands of years old. For example, some of the early ideas and writings  of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and early Christians, as well as some of the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam contain elements of the potentially transformative power of suffering. A major theme of Christian traditions, for example, are the narratives about the transformative effect of the execution of Jesus. His suffering is viewed as having the power to transform others. In some Islamic traditions, suffering is seen as instrumental to the purposes of Allah. A central theme of much philosophical inquiry, and the work of novelists, dramatists, and poets, has included attempts to understand and discover the meaning of human suffering.

            Doing something simply because it is challenging or fear-inducing or requires courage is valid for doing it for its own sake, or for the sake of increasing courage. If you take someone through a “why?” activity whereby you ask them repeatedly their reason for doing something such as attending a class, you often arrive at the final “to be happy” answer in the West. Happiness is seen as a fundamental axiom of living life which is rested upon and does not (or cannot) be justified further. Perhaps to seek challenge, courage and excitement should be another such axiom.


Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping Springer Publishing Company.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief Psychology Press.

Rothbaum, B. O., & Schwartz, A. C. (2002). Exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 56(1), 59-75.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers Owl Books.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. E. (2000). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Emotions in Social Psychology: Essential Readings, 76

Selye, H. (1975). Confusion and controversy in the stress field. Journal of Human Stress, 1(2), 37-44.

Sheldon, K. M., Kasser, T., Smith, K., & Share, T. (2002). Personal goals and psychological growth:  Testing an intervention to enhance goal attainment and personality integration. Journal of Personality, 70(1), 5-31.

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Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth:  Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 248-260.

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459-482.