The 3 Paradoxes of Life (And How They Determine Who We Are)
In life, you often find yourself in no-win situations. You tell yourself that you need to be more social. But then you go out to events and spend the whole time wishing you could be at home. You celebrate the glory of Thanksgiving by eating thirteen slices of pizza… and then proceed to spend the next two days hating yourself for eating thirteen slices of pizza. When you are single, you dream about meeting somebody special. But then, once you find yourself in a relationship, you daydream about being single.
Humans suck. We are impossible to please. We have so many conflicting needs and desires, it’s a marvel that we can even wipe the correct ass.
I’ve long written about how humans evolved to be constantly dissatisfied in some way. I’ve written about how, in life, it’s impossible to escape suffering. In fact, in one of the most popular sections of my book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Disappointment Panda says: “Life is essentially an endless series of problems—the solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next. Don’t hope for a life without problems. Hope for a life full of good problems.”1
We all experience this. The anxiety of needing to make money doesn’t go away once we’re successful—it instead morphs into an anxiety of not losing money. Feelings of inadequacy when we’re single don’t leave when we find a partner—instead, we begin to feel inadequate for our partner. We oscillate between wanting to be alone and wanting to be with others, from feeling as though we deserve good things to feeling guilty for those good things, from feeling anxious about the future and feeling bored about the future.
Can we ever win? Or are we doomed to always be dissatisfied? Is there never a perfect amount of pizza that we can eat without hating ourselves?
Is it possible to be content with our lives?
The answer is yes, we can be content. But it’s not simple. To understand why we seem to be constantly dissatisfied with ourselves and the world, we must understand some basic psychological principles, as well as, of all things… thermostats.
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The Exciting Life and Fast Times… of Your Typical Air Conditioning Unit
Chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about thermostats. If you do, it’s probably only because your partner sets yours way too hot/cold and you think they’re crazy. Or perhaps you work in an office environment where some passive-aggressive sasquatch believes that meetings will be more productive if they’re held in a goddamn icebox.2
But social strife aside, thermostats are a pretty amazing little invention. And they are analogous to a lot of the functions that happen inside our bodies and minds.
Thermostats are just a set of feedback mechanisms designed to keep the temperature within a range of a set point. When it’s too hot, the thermostat turns on the AC. If it’s just right or too cold, it turns the AC off. Thus, the temperature of the room bounces back and forth between these two points—too high, triggering one mechanism, and too low, triggering another—always keeping the temperature within a certain comfortable range (set by that asshole at the end of the hall).
Feedback mechanisms like this that always push towards a stable equilibrium create something known in systems theory as homeostasis. And while that sounds like a big SAT word, it basically just means a system that self-corrects, returning itself to equilibrium.
Many of our biological functions are homeostatic.3 Similar to the thermostat, if your body gets too hot, it releases sweat to cool itself off. If it gets too cold, it shivers to warm itself up. Other mechanisms regulate hunger and satiety, sleep and wakefulness, and so on.
And when, for whatever reason, we break outside those ranges—our blood sugar spikes out of control, or our body temperature drops to a dangerous level—the entire system threatens to break down.
Homeostatic processes emerge everywhere—in biological ecosystems, financial markets, within businesses and political systems, and, as it turns out, they often emerge in our cognitive functions.
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Your Personality as a Thermostat
Here’s a mini blow to your ego… what you experience as “you”—i.e., the traits and preferences that seem to differentiate you from everyone else—are arguably homeostatic functions.
For instance: extraversion. We all have little psychological thermostats in our brain saying, “I need more social time… wait, wait, wait… okay, that’s too much, now I want to be alone.” What determines differences between us is the range that feels “normal.” My wife can hang out with friends every night of the week and feel great. For me, by the third night, I hate the world and everyone in it, and desperately want to sit at home and read a book for four hours.4
My extraversion thermostat setting is much lower than hers, so my desire for socializing becomes “too hot” much quicker. And the feedback mechanisms—feeling tired, irritable, wishing nuclear annihilation upon this horrible, horrible species—set in for me much earlier.
But this is still kind of obvious, no? Some people prefer different ranges of cleanliness. Some have different ranges for thrill-seeking and excitement that they operate within.5 Too much cleanliness and you start feeling like a nutjob. Too little and you feel like a slob. When it comes to basic personality traits, homeostasis is fairly intuitive. Our inner thermostats are all set a little differently, and that causes each of us to respond to our environments a little differently.6
So biological homeostasic processes allow us to function and eat and poop and perceive the world. From these perceptions and experiences we develop psychological feedback mechanisms that then result in psychological homeostasis.
The homeostatic properties of our personality explain why Disappointment Panda’s lesson is so true. There’s no “perfect” amount of socializing or cleanliness or friendliness. We are constantly pinging back and forth within a range of acceptability. We love seeing friends… until we’re sick of them. Then we sit at home alone… until we’re sick of being alone, so we call up some friends. And on it goes. Much like eating and pooping, many of our psychological experiences are cyclical in nature.
But most of us, by the time we’re adults, understand our own cycles within ourselves. We intuit when we should back off and have some “self-care” time. We’ve also learned when to push ourselves out of our comfort zones or maybe make a few sacrifices for long-term gain.
Yet, we still struggle to remain content with our lives.
This is because we operate on more than just our simple psychological desires. We also create meaning around those desires, and this meaning is also subject to over-stepping in one direction or another. Thus, from our psychological equilibrium emerge philosophical homeostatic functions—feedback mechanisms notifying us when we are hollowing out our self-worth like a bowl of ice cream on one end and being a totally narcissistic fuckwit on the other.
Put your spandex on, because we’re going to push this thermostat metaphor to its limit!
Our Philosophical Homeostasis
To be human means to be constantly in the grip of opposing emotions, to daily reconcile apparently conflicting tensions. I want this, but I need that. I cherish this, but I adore its opposite, too.
Just as our biology has feedback mechanisms to keep us within a healthy range physically, and our psychology has feedback mechanisms to keep us from hating everybody and everything emotionally, I propose that we have intellectual feedback mechanisms.
These are ever-evolving belief systems in place that respond to maintain a sense of satisfaction and meaning in our lives.7 If we can manage our belief systems and assumptions to promote a philosophical balance, then we can develop a resilient and persistent state of happiness and satisfaction throughout our lives—i.e., we can be content.8
Well, duh… but that’s the fun of it.
Below are three sets of conflicting needs that everyone experiences throughout their lives. We experience these conflicting needs as paradoxes—unresolvable contradictions in our own motivations that feel impossible to win. Instead of getting everything we want, we ping back and forth, sacrificing one need for the other and vice versa, never fully satisfied, always full of anxiety and angst.
These paradoxes are universal in principle, yet play out differently in each individual life because we approach them with different experiences, desires, and beliefs. I’ll suggest principles to help us resolve each paradox, and then at the end of the article, if your brain hurts, we’ll go out for ice cream.9
1. The Paradox of Control: Stability vs Change
Think about all those cheesy horror movies for a second. The scariest parts aren’t when the guy is slamming an axe into a kid’s head or even the climactic shootout in the end where Officer Bumblefuck heroically saves the day. The scariest parts are when the main character is walking alone into a dark house, the power is off, and there are strange sounds coming from upstairs.
It’s not the actual violence that scares us. It is the uncertainty and possibility for disaster that emotionally drives us absolutely bonkers.
The need for a stable and predictable environment is a core human need.10 What frightens us or gives us anxiety is not when bad things happen—it’s when we’re not sure whether a bad thing will happen or not.
When something goes wrong, at least we have the power to fix it. We’re still in control. But when life becomes unpredictable—when the house is dark and there’s a mysterious sound upstairs—we feel as though we’ve lost control.
We seek to make our environments and our lives predictable. We lie to ourselves and misremember details in order to give us a greater feeling that we control our fate.11 We create routines, build habits, and organize our lives around a few repetitive, knowable goals or ideas.
Obsessively controlling everything in our life has an unfortunate side effect: it makes life fucking boring. The same old thing, day after day, week after week, for months on end, the mindless repetition begins to challenge our sense that our actions are actually meaningful. After all, this can’t be all that life is, right? Driving the same route to work, day after day. Saying the same things. Doing the same things. There must be something more.
Suddenly, the stable routines feel stifling. You feel yourself suffocating. You have this unbearable need to break out and do something drastic or irrational—to go climb a mountain even though you’re 50 pounds overweight. Or to crush up your kids’ Flintstone Vitamins and smoke them.
For something new. For some sense of change. Because in the same way we need a sense of control, we also need a sense of change. And that just messes up the whole game plan.
So you do it. You smoke the kids’ vitamins and climb a mountain and nearly die. But then you fall in love with a Sherpa named Domino and decide to knit saris and restart your life in the wondrous wilderness of Nepal.
This newness is exciting. It’s invigorating. It infuses your life with a sense of meaning and purpose again… You’ve finally found yourself, you think. Thank God you took the leap. This change was necessary…
… until it’s not. Because suddenly, you find yourself in Nepal, broke and alone (Domino left you for a younger, cuter, inexperienced mountain climber). You realize that not only do you not know how to make a sari, but you don’t even know what the fuck a sari is. Do they even wear them in Nepal? Who knows?
Suddenly, you feel like that kid in the dark house again—danger and peril lurking around every corner. You’re vulnerable. But not in the badass self-assured way… in the very real, animalistic way. Something could happen to you. And suddenly, you crave the safety and stability of familiarity and home. You realize that’s what makes your life feel meaningful. That’s who you are. And while you may or may not regret the detour to Nepal, you know one thing: you need to get back to stability, because that is what will bring satisfaction back to your life…
… until it doesn’t.
How to Resolve the Paradox of Control
When we feel a lack of control in our lives, we experience anxiety and despair. We struggle to find meaning or purpose for ourselves. And, after enough time, we begin to break down mentally and physically.12
To reassert control for ourselves, we seek new experiences and change. Whether it’s getting a new haircut, a new job, or moving to a far off land, we use the process of changing ourselves to give ourselves a sense of meaning and purpose again.
But change has consequences, and often those consequences are unexpected or outside of our control. Therefore, if we destabilize our environment and our lives too much, we fall back into anxiety and despair.
Change, of course, has its limits, because the more we seek change, the more meaningless that change becomes. One new haircut is exciting. Twelve new haircuts then just become another routine.
So, we seem stuck: pursue too much stability and life becomes dull and uneventful, pursue too much change and we lose ourselves in superficial excess. Too much stability and our control feels meaningless. Too much change and we feel out of control.
To resolve the paradox of control, we must pursue both stability and change simultaneously. That means consciously changing our lives gradually and reasonably. That means setting goals. That means incremental changes done with purpose. That means creating smart habits. That means imagining the person you desire to be and taking small, baby steps towards that person.
That means practicing self-discipline.
Obviously, some people will desire more stability than change and others will desire more change than stability—after all, everyone’s thermostats are set to different temperatures. So, the correct amount of self-discipline for you might be different from me and vice versa. But the principle remains: we achieve both stability and change through steady, controlled discipline.
2. The Paradox of Choice: Commitment vs Freedom
Jean-Paul Sartre was a dark dude. A brilliant writer, he was captured by the Nazis and held in a prison camp for nine months. Upon release, he joined the French resistance, regularly risking his life in efforts to undermine some Nazi scum.
These experiences had a profound influence on Sartre and his writing which, in the decades following the war, would arguably become the most important philosophical works of the 20th century.
Sartre’s whole thing was this: we’re all going to die, and if we’re all being honest about it, there’s really no evidence that any of this shit matters. In fact, the whole notion of “mattering” in the first place is something made up in our minds—a choice, if you will. We are each, from moment to moment and experience to experience, choosing what we wish to matter in our lives, thus giving our own lives meaning.
Sartre believed that to truly generate a life of meaning for oneself, you had to be willing to risk death (as in, fight some motherfucking Nazis). But he also noted that this willingness to choose something to die for is absolutely horrifying and impossibly difficult for most of us most of the time. We avoid this responsibility to choose what matters for ourselves. We distract ourselves and numb ourselves to it.
It’s for this reason that Sartre wrote that freedom was a kind of curse or burden that we must all carry with us. He said that ultimately, this need to commit to something in the face of freedom crippled many of us emotionally, that it was the greatest challenge any of us would ever face.13
Sartre won a Nobel Prize for his work… but being the edgelord emo kid he was, he decided to pass on it in favor of smoking even fancier French cigarettes.
The core of Sartre’s work is an inherent tension—or paradox—in how we create meaning for ourselves in the world. On the one hand, we are free—we are free to choose what to do, what to believe, and what to think.14 This freedom grants us the opportunity to create meaning for ourselves and from a wide selection of potential thoughts and experiences, we choose what to make of ourselves.
But this freedom can also become overwhelming. We can become addicted to infinite options, to the constant possibility of bigger, better, more, more, more. Beyond a certain point, freedom seems to discourage commitment because we are too aware of everything that we are potentially giving up.
But without that commitment to something, our life begins to feel empty and pointless… It’s all just superficial stuff that accumulates and then quickly serves no purpose.
It’s only by rejecting alternatives, by giving up certain freedoms through making commitments, that our freedom becomes meaningful. For instance, when you commit to one partner, part of the significance of that commitment is the fact that you have given up the freedom to commit to other people. Once you commit to a career or a craft, part of the meaning of that commitment is the fact that you’ve given up on your dreams of being an astronaut or a professional basketball player or cleaning the Pope’s toilet.
Freedom is only meaningful when it is given up. And we give up freedom by making commitments.
But just as we can be overwhelmed by our freedom, we can also become overwhelmed by our commitments. When we over-commit, we can feel trapped, as though we’ve lost our identity. When we’re over-committed, we lose the sense of freedom of choice—and without the freedom of choice, then commitments lose their significance.
At some point, we need to feel as though we have an option again, as though we have a choice in our commitments. So we seek independence. We throw off commitments and labels. We try to stand alone. We break free. We say, “Fuck you, Nobel Prize! I choose my dainty French cigarettes!” And then we feel empowered by it.
But after a while, that too can lead us to malaise, a sense that it was all for nothing. After all, if we cast off all of our commitments in favor of freedom, then our commitments meant nothing. But if we give up all of our freedoms in favor of our commitments, then our freedoms meant nothing. Moooom! Help!
How to Resolve the Paradox of Choice
Much like the paradox of change vs stability was resolved by merging the two extremes, here the only way to resolve the paradox of choice is by committing to actions that multiply our freedoms—that is, making a commitment to our own growth.
The ability to commit to exercise makes your body more capable and adaptable, expanding your physical freedom. The commitment of education grants you the greater freedoms provided by the knowledge you learn. The commitment to certain relationships helps you emotionally mature into an individual who is better able to flourish.
The line between growth and stagnation can be hard to decipher at times, but it’s crucial to be able to recognize the difference and resolve the paradox of choice. Our commitments, when made out of insecurity and fear, shrink our selves. When I commit to binge-watching 72 episodes of The Office, I’m not benefiting from greater freedom. I am arbitrarily limiting myself. Whereas if I commit to writing 72 episodes of a comedy show, I am expanding myself from my commitment, opening myself up to greater freedoms provided by my efforts.
3. The Paradox of Relationships: Individuality vs Conformity
When I was a kid, I went to a new school and there was this other new kid—let’s call him “Jeff.” That whole first week, Jeff followed me around like a sick puppy. He did everything I did, agreed with everything I said, laughed when I laughed, got upset when I got upset, and so on.
It was unbearable. I quickly started hating this kid. Within a few days, I was making fun of him in front of other kids and telling him to fuck off (I know, I know… but I was fourteen, fourteen-year-olds are evil).
Looking back, like me, he wanted to make a friend. The problem is, he went about it exactly the wrong way. He thought if he just acted exactly like me, I’d be forced to like him. After all, who doesn’t think their own ideas are the greatest?
But it backfired. By acting exactly like me, he prevented me from feeling like a unique individual. And because I was prevented from feeling like a unique individual, everything I thought or did became pointless. This inability to feel unique or different pissed me off to the point that I said mean junior high things like, “Get a life, dweeb!”
Jeff did get a life. And about a year later, we became friends. It was only when he allowed himself to be an individual and different from me that I respected him for those differences and accepted him. This, in a nutshell, is the paradox of relationships.
We all want to be connected with others. It’s a fundamental human need.15 To be accepted, we mimic and follow others. We conform. We look for a group or crowd to be a part of. This helps us feel secure and as though we are loved and needed.
But if we conform too much—i.e., if we completely surrender our individual identity to another person or to a group—then we lose a sense of who we are. And because we have no sense of who we are or what we want, that surrender renders the relationship meaningless.
I had a friend a few years ago who made his wife the center of his universe. He was like her Jeff: he followed her everywhere. He did everything with her. He went on business trips with her and stayed in the hotel. He even packed her suitcase for her!
And what happened? She left him, duh… because in trying to be everything she wanted, he was no longer a separate person for her to love… He was merely a shadow of herself.
But there’s an opposite approach to human relationships, as well. We can try to be completely different from everybody else. We can become contrarian. We can wear our hair in a weird way and stop showering and adopt a small pack of feral wolves and speak about ourselves in the third person.
This desperate desire for individuality is motivated by the same thing that motivates the Jeffs of the world: the desire to feel important. In the case of Jeff, he tried to feel important by mimicking and being accepted by someone he admired. In the case of the weirdo individualist, they seek to feel important by being incomparable to anyone else.
By rejecting and being rejected by others, they write a narrative in their minds that they are rejected because they matter. And the more they are rejected, the more people will have to pay attention to them and engage with them.
But the weirdo individualist runs into the paradox from the other end: by trying to be unlike everyone else, he or she just conforms… to other non-conformists.
When non-conformity becomes another type of conformity
Like the other philosophical paradoxes, both individuality and conformity fall into one another. Because whether you act exactly like the people around you or exactly opposite of the people around you, the truth remains: you are basing your life on the people around you.
How to Resolve the Paradox of Relationships
Healthy relationships require a fragile balance—the ability to identify with someone or something, while also being able to identify without someone or something. It’s the ability to be yourself, for yourself, while also being accepted by others.
Or, as I put it in my book Models: you will always care what people think about you, the trick isn’t to stop caring—the trick is to correctly prioritize how you feel about yourself first over what people think.
We resolve the paradox of relationships through acceptance—both the acceptance of oneself (I will be different and yet, I will also be the same) as well as the acceptance of others (they will be different and yet, they will also be the same). It’s the ability to recognize yourself both as an individual and as someone who conforms to their relationships without identifying too much with either.
We manage our conflicting desires for stability and change through self-discipline. We manage our conflicting desires for commitment and freedom through committing to our own growth. We manage our conflicting desires for individuality and conformity through acceptance, both of ourselves and of others.
Growth. Discipline. Acceptance. Sounds nice, right?
Easier said than done. And remember, these don’t get rid of the struggles of life… they simply point your struggles in the right direction. These are skills that we must develop within ourselves. They must be practiced and perfected, like bowling or making funny ice sculptures. They are skills that help you use your dissatisfaction to your advantage rather than your disadvantage. Because these inherent tensions will always be within us and resolving them is a never-ending process—a tightrope that extends infinitely into the horizon.
The best we can hope for is to simply get better at balancing.
- Manson, Mark (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, 30. Did I just cite myself? You’re goddamn right I did.↵
- I had a teacher in high school who kept his classroom at a freezing temperature because he said it made it more difficult to fall asleep during lectures. I, of course, took this as a challenge. I brought my coat to class each day and made sure to fall asleep every chance I got.↵
- Palaparthi S (2017) Role of Homeostasis in Human Physiology: A Review. Journal of Medical Physiology and Therapeutics. 1(2), pp. 101.↵
- The idea that personality is homeostatic was popular among researchers in the 1950s and 60s. But fuck it, I’m bringing homeostasis back. Let’s make America Homeostatic Again! See: Stagner, R. (1951) Homeostasis as a Unifying Concept in Personality Theory, Psychological Review. 58(1) pp. 5-17.↵
- These two examples would correspond to conscientiousness and openness within the Big Five framework of personality. To learn more about the Big Five Personality model, you can read, see: The Big Five Personality Traits (external link). You can also read a summary of the development of the model in another article I wrote, called: Why Being an Asshole Can Be a Valuable Life Skill. ↵
- Generally, most research finds that our traits and behaviors are driven almost equally by genetics and environments. Our genetics set our thermostats, causing different people to react to the same environment differently. But then we also each have different environments, which generate different beliefs, experiences and characteristics, which alter our thermostats as well. For more discussion on this, See: Bouchard, T. J., Lykken, D. T., McGue, M., Segal, N. L., & Tellegen, A. (1990). Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Science, 250(4978), 223–228↵
- These feedback mechanisms are wide and varying and I won’t be covering all of them here. But if you’re interested in how we alter our beliefs and perceptions to maintain a set level of happiness, check out Daniel Gilbert’s classic book, Stumbling on Happiness (2006).↵
- It’s interesting to note here that the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, saw happiness as a result of “perfect balance” in everything—not too frugal, but not too extravagant either; not too friendly, but not too mean either; etc. As with pretty much everything in life… the Greeks thought of it first.↵
- The three paradoxes are based on the struggles of achieving and maintaining the three psychological needs of Self-Determination Theory. See: Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. The American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.↵
- Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 457–463.↵
- Bortolotti, L. (2017). Stranger than Fiction: Costs and Benefits of Everyday Confabulation. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 9(2), 227–249.↵
- Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105(1), 3–46.↵
- Sartre’s philosophy is known as “Existentialism” and I’m a huge fan. Much of my work is based on the same ideas. For an intro to Sartre’s ideas, check out Existentialism is a Humanism (1946). And if you’re really ballsy/a masochist, you can try to tackle his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness (1943).↵
- For the most part, that is. ↵
- Why We Are Wired to Connect. Scientific American.↵