So, You Want to Change the World?
Why do certain aspects of our lives stay the same when we want to change them? We find it difficult to lose weight, step outside our comfort zones, or even change our schedules. Individuals are not the only ones who find change difficult. Corporations, economies, markets, and even governments encounter these issues. Legitimate concerns are often raised and nothing happens.
It’s as if there is some force preventing us from changing and not surprisingly, such an extraordinary force exists. It’s called “homeostasis” and it is found at the cellular level, the multicellular level, and at all levels of organization even to those that are global in nature, such as weather and economics.
Homeostasis describes a system’s tendency to regulate itself internally and thus resist alterations brought about by the environment in which it operates. It derives from the Greek homos, meaning similar, and stasis, standing still.
In humans, homeostasis regulates the body’s ability to maintain salinity, temperature, and other functions within a narrow range. Typically, this is accomplished using a control mechanism called a feedback loop.
For example, in a simple thermostat, the temperature is measured by a receptor. Once the temperature deviates from its set point by a predetermined amount, signals are sent to a heating unit, or a cooling unit, called an effector that brings the temperature back into the range it should be. At which point, the effector shuts down until another deviation occurs.1
The term, homeostasis, was coined by Walter Bradford Cannon of Harvard Medical School in 1926 who popularized his theories in his book, The Wisdom of the Body, which came out in 1932. He was also the first to coin the phrase: ‘flight or fight response’.
Cannon developed his idea of homeostasis from the earlier work of the Frenchman, Claude Bernard, a lesser known but significant medical scientist of the 19th century. Bernard was one of the first practitioners to use and promote the scientific method in medicine. He was also an avid vivisectionist. It was perhaps his singular zeal for research that led him to vivisection the family dog and precipitated his horrified wife and daughters leaving him shortly thereafter, never to return.2 In spite of such errors in personal judgement, professionally, he was the first French scientist to be honored with a state funeral based upon his many accomplishments. One of his significant observations was that the ability of an organism to maintain a stable internal environment was the key to its ability to operate independently, relative to its surroundings.
Without internal stability, life as we know it could not exist, yet in order to survive, life must constantly adapt to environmental challenges that threaten its existence. To adapt means to change, yet to continue to live requires that it doesn’t. This fundamental tension is found not just in humans but in every living thing and in every organizational structure that life has resurrected. There are no exceptions.
From a human perspective, is it any wonder that we find change psychologically and physically difficult given that our bodies, the systems that make up them, the cells that make up those systems, and the organelles that make up those cells are structured to resist change? And remember, it doesn’t matter whether that change from your perspective is good or bad. It will be resisted. It’s not personal. It is simply a byproduct of change.
In the physical universe, change requires not one but three steps:
- One must un-stabilize the existing system or systems.
- Make the needed change.
- Stabilize what has been changed so that the change lasts.
To understand why three steps are needed rather than simply making a lasting change requires a closer look at homeostasis.
Using Bernard’s research, Cannon proposed four propositions as the basis for homeostasis:
- Mechanisms are required to maintain constancy.
- Steady state conditions require mechanisms that resist change.
- The regulating systems require a number of cooperating systems acting at the same time or successively.
- Homeostasis is not dictated by chance but through organization.3
We know that some changes are easier to make than others. Where there is resistance to change, based on the above, at least one mechanism exists to resist it. More likely there will be several working together or successively, and that they are organized in some way.
From a psychological point of view, homeostasis is a blessing and a curse. If we try and change our lives for good or bad, there will be resistance, but if we are aware of how homeostasis works, we can at least formulate what steps to take to ensure that the changes we wish to make have a chance at succeeding.
Let’s take an example. Suppose you decide to get in better physical shape. Your doctor says your health is not what it should be. You will need to change your life so you decide to start exercising in earnest. Swimming seems the least rigorous, so you choose swimming. You begin. After only a single length of a 50-meter pool, you’re ready to drown. Your heart rate is pushing 180, your breathing is labored, and it is all you can do to simply hang onto the far end of the pool, let alone climb out.
Firstly, this is not atypical. Your body is protesting because your set point, what it is comfortable doing, is set for much less activity and various alarms start ringing internally to protest your unexpected physical exertions. You persist nonetheless.
After two weeks of regular practice, your body calms down, but you find yourself dragging at work. You’re in a fog, and you have a peculiar ache that has no specific location and appears psychosomatic in nature. Your spouse says you smell of chlorine and have a rash on your back. Your eyes are always bloodshot and perversely, the dog has to go to the vet during your swim time. To add to your burden, the boss wants to talk to you. You might think that all these things have nothing to do with what you are attempting, but remember your life is composed of and surrounded by hundreds of physical systems, mental systems, social systems, and political systems that are homeostatic in nature. There will be feedback, and the good news in spite of your many challenges, is that you now have some idea of the systems that have sustained and supported you in the past, but are now likely the ones resisting the changes you wish to make.
There are three points that can help us make either major and minor changes.
- Be aware that there will be resistance and backlash, and that it will come from multiple and often unexpected areas.
The bigger the change required, the bigger the resistance. There is, of course, the possibility that you have started down a bad road, but remember, whether it is a bad road, or a good one, there will be reactions. It is change that is being resisted no matter which it is. You will have to be the one to decide whether the change you envisage will be ultimately for good or bad, but do not expect it to be easy.
- Given the above, it might be worth reassessing and modifying what one is doing without giving up. One must learn to negotiate with change.
Often big changes are accomplished by taking one step back for every two steps forward. This too is normal. Secondly, changes often show immediate increases in performance, only to be followed by performance plateaus that frustratingly persist before the next breakthrough is achieved. Understanding homeostasis will allow you to realize that a new set point is being established and that plateauing is necessary. You are part of many systems, both internally and externally, that each must adjust to establish new set points and that takes time.
- Develop a support system. Homeostasis, according to Cannon, is not dictated by chance but by organization.
By understanding the systemic nature of homeostasis, you can see that you need to take organizational steps to cement the changes you have made. These can be as simple as going to a swimming class, or joining a Master’s program*, or scheduling regular exercise and recovery periods. The point is if changes are to be sustained, there must be organization established to keep the gains that have been made.4
We live in a world that is composed of thousands of systems. It is these systems that allow us to maintain the life-styles and infrastructures that ultimately permit us to exist. They are a tremendous benefit, but it is these very systems that often hold us back from making the large changes in our lives that we wish to bring about. Change may not be easy, but it is possible provided there is an understanding of what one is up against.
*A swimming organization for amateurs that meets regularly.
- Colchester, J. (2016) Systems + Thinking. Electronic book retrieved from Complexity Labs, http://complexitylabs.io/.
- Midgley, M. (1998) Animals and Why They Matter. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.
- Cannon, W. (1932) The Wisdom of the Body. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Leonard, G. (1992) Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. New York, NY: Plume.
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