Opinion. Psychological Homeostasis by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Psychological Homeostasis by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Psychological Homeostasis by Hal O’Leary.  ‘Humans will expend whatever effort is necessary to maintain the peace of mind experienced with psychological stability, but…’


Color Wheel. Photo by Maliz Ong


When we first think of homeostasis, it is usually in respect to the maintenance of a biological balance of bodily functions for equilibrium in the system. The lack of such equilibrium can lead to dire consequences, even death.  There is, however, another homeostasis that is equally important. It is psychological homeostasis.  Here, our peace of mind calls for psychological balance in response to everyday events. There is one school of psychology that suggests that humans will expend whatever effort is necessary to maintain the peace of mind experienced with psychological stability, but that once it is achieved, the subject will cease acting, and then come to rest. It is with this theory that I have a bit of a problem, which I would like to explore.

In my teaching days I had a colleague, a psychology professor, who adhered to such a theory. While, in one sense, I agreed that his argument was most logical and even obvious, I contended that it was impractical. But, he would question, if I was not denying the truth of the theory,   how could I maintain that it’s impractical?  I would then remind him that very often we find  many truths to be impractical when they are not the whole truth. That is why that in a court of law the whole truth is called for. In this case, if we want the “whole truth and nothing but the truth,” we must amend the theory to read that “there is a tendency to cease acting.”  To cease all action in an effort to maintain stability can be not only impractical but detrimental to one’s psychological well-being.  Therefore, this tendency must be resisted. My contention is that in the event homeostasis has restored a psychological balance and there are no external events to create an imbalance, the individual will. in the interest of just finding something to do, create a contrived imbalance.

There is one inescapable fact for human beings. To live is to act. Not to act is to simply exist. Not to act is directly contrary to human nature.  In fact, it is humanly impossible to refrain from acting in the face of the impermanence of an ever-changing environment. We must adapt to survive. With any life form, not to do so leads to eventual extinction. Thus, for an individual to cease acting once equilibrium is restored could be viewed as a veritable denial of life.

As obvious as the above may be, there are other equally important reasons for the individual to resist the tendency toward inaction in order to maintain stability and balance. The reasons are development and growth of the individual and progress in the evolution of the race.  Stagnation,  is anathema to life.

Admittedly, any action involves a certain amount of risk. The tendency to avoid risk, the need to play it safe, must of necessity reduce opportunity for development and growth in the individual. It will also retard progress for a society. With a need for both growth and progress on the one hand and safety and stability on the other, there is a constant tension between homeostasis and the need to create. Ideologically speaking, in politics we have the conservatives and the progressives. Although the political rhetoric often muddies a clear understanding of what each proposes to stand for, the basic conservative tends to resist change. Strict adherence to such a policy can, of course, carry with it a risk of stagnation, which inhibits the ability to adapt to a changing environment. The progressive, on the other hand, in opting for change, runs the risk of a reckless adventurism leading to ill-advised decisions. Both extremes can be equally destructive.

Ideally, we should strike a balance. We should act, but with caution.  In opting to resist change in an effort to maintain homeostasis, the individual or a society may ignore with peril the inevitable changes that are taking place. Doing so, of course, puts the individual or the society out of touch with both the actual reality in which they find themselves and the outdated reality they attempt to maintain. The damage incurred often leads the individuals to become either loners or embittered antagonists, neither of which provides the comfort and peace of mind sought for in homeostasis.  As self-destructive as inaction or reckless action can prove to be for an individual, or society, failure to act or to act capriciously in attempts to establish a world-wide homeostasis is more likely to result in chaos.  Such, I fear, is the result of the capricious American imperialistic designs for world domination while ignoring the obvious distress and unrest at home. The rapidly changing world in which our society finds itself forces a response. There can be no homeostasis to be found in a society that prays for peace while at the same time is expected to support a criminal regime with its perpetual war policy.

The constant tension between homeostasis and the need to act creatively must be balanced with common sense. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would forego the right and obligation to act, though such action might be, for a bit of anticipated homeostasis, will end with the loss of both. To live is to act.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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