You probably don’t know this but Hormesis is your best friend. In fact, whoever you thought was your best friend, well, Hormesis is their best friend too! And you can take advantage of this best friend, Hormesis, without guilt, to improve your performance at anything. Learn another language faster. Get better at chess. Manage your team at work better. Run a 10km faster.
About 2.5 years ago, when my British born children were returning from 8 years of Indian schooling in Mumbai, to London, to continue their education, they were amused when I told them, “British children are afraid of exams”. The fact is that students in most ‘regimes’ are afraid of tests and exams. Why were my children amused and why did they think tests and exams were fun? Simple – they have made their friend, Hormesis, an integral part of their lives. Hopefully, forever.
The Birth of Hormesis
The phenomenon has always existed but the name Hormesis was coined barely 75 years ago by a scientist in the area of phytopathology – the science of diagnosing and managing plant disease. Today it is used more generally to identify certain beneficial effect of nutrients, environmental factors or even physical exercise.
The phrase “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” describes Hormesis very well. A level of stress that triggers an adaptation to make you stronger. The ‘dose’ needs to be in an appropriate range. Too little and you will not really benefit. Too much and it is harmful.
Puru Expands and Extends Hormesis
Going beyond what scientists would research, test or experiment with, I observe and recognize the phenomenon of Hormesis around us in an almost infinite number of settings. As a simple illustration, if you look at The Wellness Tree, you will see that a hormetic response could, in theory, be triggered by you in an almost infinite number of distinct settings.
Recognizing the Presence of Hormesis
You are an energy conserving, pain avoiding, pleasure seeking creature. I am too. So are my children. However, to achieve our long-term goals of being well, we are always making sacrifices, or investments, or taking certain risks. In essence, we are exposing ourselves to what we think are adequate levels of stress. This is what is called Eustress – good stress – adapting to which improves your system.
Here ‘system’ is any part of what you would consider to be associated with your life. It could be your financial portfolio – no one grows rich in the long-term by keeping their money ‘safe’ in the savings account of a bank. It could be your physical strength – you will not get strong if every time that you go to the gym your only exercise is to jog on the treadmill. It could be your mental strength – you will not get better at speaking French if you do not put yourself through the discomfort of trying to speak it! And, it applies to your emotional and spiritual health too in similar ways.
Hormesis was Always Lurking
When I spoke to you some months ago about The Accidental Wisdom of Pain Seekers the wise pain seekers were using their friend Hormesis. When I said you could Get a 6-pack without an ‘ab-workout’ it was because you could rely on your friend Hormesis. When I told you how you Life can be Good with French Fries, it was thanks to Hormesis. Even the conversations on narrow topics like The 1-arm Pushup or Pushups for the Ladies were about taking help from Hormesis. And we were clearly relying on Hormesis when I talked about Why You Need Not Run!
Taking Advantage of Your Best Friend
So how might you take advantage of Hormesis so as to Mind the Gap between Healthspan and Lifespan or move away from work-life balance towards Time-Optimized Living?
It’s pretty simple, really. Here is what I do for myself, for the individuals I mentor, and for the organizations I advise:
For the feature you want to improve, break the problem down into as many distinct components as you can
[read The Weakness Bottleneck]
- Decide which components you are going to give the extra dose of ‘good stress’ to
[remind yourself about Process for Performance]
- Make an educated guess about what the size of the extra dose should be, remembering that too large a dose is likely to be harmful and not create the appropriate adaptation
[read Why I don’t care about your Ultra – How big is your ROTI?]
- Plan a timetable for the extra dose e.g. if the dose is on the high side of acceptable, perhaps ‘not too frequently’ is best
[read The Money is in the Detail]
- Execute your timetabled plan
[read Discipline – the Link between Ordinary and Exceptional]
- Log your actual execution details – because life rarely goes precisely according to plan
[read about my Green Movements]
- Measure the response i.e. change in performance
[read about Genetic Potential Fitness]
- Tweak as needed
[read Competing & Comparing – Targeting Happiness Maximization]
Don’t let your Best Friend take Advantage of You
If, so far, I have your mind focused on having Hormesis working to make your world a better place, it is worthwhile to note that the phenomenon is impartial to your value system and mine. Repeated stresses that could make the world a worse place, if not kept in check, can also make their effect felt without much protest. Here are two simple examples:
Hormesis against You – if you get used to small injustices towards you, you will stop noticing their effects in each instance, but in the long run you will be very much worse off.
Hormesis and the Bystander Effect – we are often reminded that, besides the perpetrator, we are equally to blame if we stand by and watch an injustice to others that we do nothing about (think ‘say NO to bullying’). Perhaps the first time you were shocked, but not enough to do something about it. Over time you might be even less likely to. Want another example? Think about how the initial shock of street beggars to someone not used to them turns much milder as the days go by.
Children and Exams – Adults and Exams
I had decided even before they were born that I would mentor my children to love and enjoy exams. So, when I started teaching them mathematics around the age of 4, the methodology of teaching was “learning by doing” and the “doing” was a very, very slow progression [in difficulty level] arithmetic sheet on which I would scribble out anything between 10 and 50 questions almost daily. They knew that the questions towards the end would not be as easy as the ones near the start. But they also knew that they would be capable of doing them. And they learnt over time that getting through the questions made them improve with acceptable levels of effort. Doing tests daily was a fun activity. So ‘examinations’ which are normally perceived as being stressful for most children, were always seen as a ‘fun activity’ even as the years progressed.
Enough about my children. How will you make your best friend Hormesis work for you today?
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.
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