The Inverted U Curves of Life

In Essays, Philosophy, Productivity, Self Improvement

Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

~ Aristotle

I am a minimalist, but I am not too enamoured about minimalism. I believe it is easy to become overenthusiastic and go too far with minimalism. Perhaps it’s not quite as easy, or tolerated, as going the other way, constantly accumulating more and more stuff but it is just as dangerous.

Today’s essay is about learning to take the middle path in life. Life is separated into good and bad, virtue and vice.

However, it is worth remembering that life is not black and white. From a very high view point, the 30,000 foot view, life does appear to be like that, but upon further inspection it is clear that there are large grey patches.

What I want to write about today in this essay is about the good stuff in life, and especially how we can have too much of the good in our lives, that it actually becomes bad.

This seems obvious, but it is incredible how often we are duped, both as individuals and a society, to believe that we need more, and we need better. Often the only benefit comes to the person who happens to make a large profit out of the entire enterprise.

Other times, we simply dupe ourselves.

We can actually plot this “too much of a good thing” problem on a graph, and it would look something akin to an upside down “U”.

Often it is also called Kuznets Curve.

We plot the quantity on the x axis and the supposed benefit on the y axis.

This tells us that as we increase the quantity of x, we begin to receive great benefits (y), but then we pass a stage where increasing quantities of x don’t provide a similar increase in benefit y, until the process reverses and we actually end up having less benefit y for the amount of x we have.

This is true for everything from the size of your workforce, to the amount of money you have and to the amount of hours you study to the amount of physical exercise you take.

Why is it Important?

How would you react if I told you that everything you are striving for, everything you have been taught, has been based on a large misconception? It’s true – all of us have been taught to keep wanting more, that more is better.

In reality, the good life is found in the middle way, not too much, not too little, but just right.

Just like cooking: too much salt is bad for you, but none at all makes for a tasteless dish.

We need to learn to moderate our desires. Fortunately, and unfortunately, we live in a world where almost all desires are possible.

Does this automatically mean that we should ditch of self-control and just try and experience as much as we can in one lifetime?

While this may sound exciting, we need to remember that all actions have consequences, and that we are all capable of having too much of a good thing.

The upside of all of this is it is quite easy to avoid once we become aware that life follows in the inverted U curve.

The obvious thing to take home from the fact that we can get too much of a good thing is that we should strive for qualitative improvements, not quantitative. Do you really need one hundred staff, or can you make do with fifty good people, or perhaps even just ten really good rockstar staff members and some clever software?

Examples of the Inverted U Curve.

Wealth

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Inverted U curve is how it sheds light on the way life works. We all need money to live, but exactly how much? Someone, somewhere, said that a rich man is someone who earns 20% more than his wife’s sister’s husband.

I think we are all aware that wealth is relative, so one cannot put an actual dollar figure on how much money is enough or too much, because that changes according to both where you live in the world, and your place in society.

However, we can probably formulate a rule of thumb that can work for most people. How about this:

A person needs enough money to be able to afford the basics such as a home, food, clothing, general bill, and transportation, while also having enough money left over for a moderate amount of entertainment and savings.

Clearly if you have six children this is going to turn out to be far more money than if you’re a twenty year-old student.

Alcohol Consumption

There are studies that claim that a moderate amount of alcohol is actually good for you. I’m not going to get into that, but one can confidently state that a moderate amount of alcohol is not going to majorly disrupt your daily life, and yet, it is so easy to start drinking more and more over time and before you know it, it is actually causing a problem.

The Inverted U Curve of alcohol consumption is quite steep, the disadvantages of increase the quantity can make themselves apparent very quickly. Try drinking ten beers a day for a week, and see how you feel.

Happiness

Apparently one can also be too happy, that it actually causes underachievement, because the status quo is just fine. On a personal level, this doesn’t seem to bad. After all, if I am happy, why should I go through the difficult and stressful process of change, of creating new opportunities full of uncertainty and risk?

Well, the reason that you should go ahead and always create these opportunities is threefold:

  1. It forges character. The more we deal with risk, uncertainty and stress in our lives, the better we get at handling it. Of course, the inverted U curve also applies here. So don’t get too stressed.
  2. You don’t really have a choice. Life will automatically create stress, risk and uncertainty without you having to do anything. If you choose to ignore it and stay all happy, it may well come back and bite you on the ass. This is why Western nations give huge amount in aid, but also continue to maintain nuclear capabilities. Hope for the best, prepare for the absolute worst.
  3. If everyone was perfectly happy, then nothing would move forward. Look around yourself, note every single object around you. Each one of these objects has been built by a company. Just think about what that means. It means that there were probably dozens of competing companies trying to build that object in the best possible way, people having arguments, staff getting fired, promotions, families havebroken up, taxes avoided, lawsuits, entire factories created, shipping freighters that missed deadlines and so on and so on. All so that object could land on your desk. It’s quite amazing that every single thing you can think of has gone through this process of intense competition, and hopefully at the end of it the best rise to the top (but not always.). This is not always an enjoyable, happy process.

Being Moderately Moderate.

Moderation is difficult, and also, isn’t there a contradiction in always being moderate? Surely that is not moderate? Also moderation can come in many forms, shapes and sizes, and who is there to tell us which to follow?

For example, let’s take the above mentioned problem of alcohol consumption. As we keep going towards to right-side of the x-axis on the inverted U curve graph, we eventually reach a point where the amount of alcohol ingested in one session can lead to adverse, permanent health damage or even death.

Personally, I like to draw the line quite a long way away from that point when I go out with friends!

So clearly that sets a top-end point – if you die drinking alcohol, clearly you weren’t being moderate. So what about not drinking any alcohol at all? Well, that’s for sure a more intelligent option that the other extreme, but it can still lead you to problems.

Not drinking alcohol doesn’t conform to social standards in many parts of the world.. This is not a huge problem per se, especially if you don’t let yourself be bothered by such things.

Unfortunately, you cannot have the cake and eat it. If you don’t drink alcohol, you will have to expect some degree of separation from the average person. A lot of business and bonding does happen over a drink, and you may miss out on that. Again, not a big deal if you’re not bothered about it, but then don’t be surprised if you don’t win that big contract.

So between those two extremes, what is moderate drinking?

The problem is that we live in an all-or-nothing society. Everybody either goes all-in, or cold turkey. Nobody wants to just slow down or cut down. It doesn’t feel sexy, it doesn’t feel revolutionary, but guess what – big changes are actually small daily changes stretched over time – not particularly exciting stuff.

What about not drinking everyday, but then going out on a binge once a month? Is that less or more moderate than someone who has a glass or two of red wine each day?

If you measure the amount of drinking being done, the daily drinker probably out drinks the once-in-a-full-moon binge drinker by dozens of drinks. Yet, you would never judge the daily drinker as being not moderate, while if you catch the occasional drinker on one of their nights out, you may think that they have a drink problem.

Let me know what you think about this in the comments, I’ve not managed to make my mind up about it.

The Stoics took a fairly strict view on this: Moderation is about what you do every damn day.

So the daily moderate drinker is the more moderate person from their point of view, and I tend to agree, but if go out and get completed drunk every so often and it’s not causing you too many problems, then continue, but just be aware that you’re not being as moderate as you think.

So it all boils down to creating positive daily habits and routines that are moderate in nature, and this will allow us to easily navigate the middle path in life.