The Stochasticity of Life

A few months ago, various circumstances led me to a brief bout with depression. It is a strange moment when you reflect that, “I am depressed”. As I’m prone to do when I don’t know much about a subject, I googled depression. As part of my searching, I ended up reading some insightful comments on depression by Art De Vany, who almost three years ago today, was watching his wife succumb to a terminal disease. Regarding depression, Art wrote (emphasis mine):

Are you depressed they ask? And I say no, you only get depressed when you compare the present state with one that is better or perfect in some way. If you accept the reality of the present state, then you can’t make these irrelevant comparisons of what is against the ideal.

You are so strong they say. And I say, no. I am just grounded in the reality of the now and trying to find the best things to do to influence the ensemble of paths on which our lives will evolve from here. If I become depressed or confused, I give up our moment of power. …

The lifepath ensemble formulation is a liberating idea because it makes you understand that you cannot achieve a unique outcome and that the transitions from this state to the next are stochastic. All we can do is to do those things that make favorable transitions more likely.

Not that depression is that bad a thing always. If it is motivating to realize you have fallen short of some attainable goal, it may lead you to improve your preparation for the next life transition. But, if you think you can achieve the change or goal with certainty, then you may become depressed in an unhealthful way. This can fall into a non-linear dynamic that is reinforcing, leading to deeper depression and, eventually, non-competent decisions.

After reading these comments a few months back, I sensed their truth while rejecting their application. Depression is sinister in that it is addictive — I wanted to wallow in my depression rather than work to escape it. It is so easy to be the victim.

Though I won’t elaborate on this further here, it’s likely that what helped me overcome my depression were the positive steps I took1 to improve my health. Not surprisingly, these steps were small to start but have cascaded, compounding their goodness in a non-linear fashion.

Underlying the depression application of De Vany’s comments is a central, important idea: the stochasticity2 of life. De Vany also calls it the “lifepath ensemble formulation”3. These descriptors evoke imagery of a symphony of circumstances, many of which are unpredictable, that drive life forward. So much of life occurs as the sum of a randomness. Even when not random, the number of causal factors in life are often so great as to destroy predictability.

Rather than despair over life’s innate uncertainty and randomness, I accept it. Doing so assuages my anxiety about potentially negative outcomes and empowers me to take the necessarily small steps that will further progress towards a goal. This is even more important when the lifepath ensemble seems nothing more than cacophony. Indeed, the stochasticity of life adds depth and beauty. Would you really have it any other way?

Though I can’t be sure, I bet that is what De Vany means by the “lifepath ensemble” — it is the string of individual actions that come together to set a course for my life. The course will be anything but certain, so accept the uncertainty, and work within it.

Extracurricular reading

  • Anyone else reminded of Knocked Up? There’s a line in that movie spoken by the father (played by Harold Ramis) to Ben (Seth Rogen) that goes something like “Life doesn’t care about your plans!” Here’s the mp3 of Ben more or less reciting this line to Allison (Katherine Hiegl). A strong undercurrent of this hilarious movie is the stochasticity of life.
  • I might have to blog on this in more detail later, but Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, practices “affirmations”. Affirmations is a method whereby you write out a specific goal 15 times a day for as long as it takes (at least six months) for the goal to manifest itself in your life. Mystical enough for you? Adams says he practiced affirmations regarding becoming a syndicated cartoonist. His affirmation was “I Scott Adams will become a syndicated cartoonist.” Correlation is not causation; however, I can imagine a causal pathway whereby writing down a specific goal encourages you to focus on means to accomplish the goal, consciously or otherwise. Alternatively, focusing on the goal raises your awareness and helps you tune out much of the stochastic noise of life and focus on taking those small steps. Here is a re-post4 of Adams’ post. Note: I have not tried affirmations.
  • My sister clued me in to Earl Nightingale’s “Strangest Secret in the World”. Here’s a ten minute clip of this on youtube. You can listen to it but the secret is that “we become what we think about”. Again, the method by which thought becomes action is unclear; however, it seems obvious that we will actualize our desires and our desires spring from our thought. So think!


1 Art played an indirect, but prominent role in that process, as well, so I probably owe Dr. De Vany a “thank you” or two.

2 To save anyone from looking this up — as I had to, “stochasticity” means:

the quality of lacking any predictable order or plan

3 Such a provocative descriptor and yet he has not since blogged on the “lifepath ensemble” again — 1 2

4 Quite bizarrely, the original blog post by Adams on his Dilbert Blog has disappeared. You can do the googling yourself if you don’t believe me. Strikes me as odd. Note: in the original post, Adams alluded to a book on luck by Richard Wiseman. That post is still out there for the reading.