The complexity of life

Do you want to be active, productive, and social? Of course you want all of them! But you can’t! You can’t have all of them.

I wrote this blog to show that sometimes you have to choose between the things you want to focus on. If you focus on one thing, you likely have to let go of others. Many things are just trade-offs. Nevertheless, I think that people are often judging people on their “ignorance” nonetheless. For example we have your friends, who judge you for cancelling a date, because you want to study. But on the other side we have your teacher, who doesn’t understand why don’t get straight A’s, when you just need desperately some social interaction.

We all have things that we are dedicated to but unfortunately the result is that we have to let go of other things. To show you that is the case, I used two years of my Lifelog data and made a web of the factors of my life (figure 1). The lines that are drawn between the factors are all significant correlations. Green lines are positive correlations, this means that the more I do from something I also do the more from the other thing. Red lines are negative correlations, this means the more I do from one thing, the less I f do from the other thing. The thicker the line, the stronger the relation is. The thin lines are weak correlations, the medium lines have a moderate strength, while the thick lines represent moderate to strong correlations.


The many weak correlations
As you look at the web it is instantly visible how connected every aspect in my life is. Every aspect has a relation with another aspect. When you do something of one thing a lot, the other things get instantly affected by it. For example, when I have a social day; often I am happy, more active, become less lonely, less stressed, feel a little healthier but am less productive. However, I often play football/squash games with friends. It could be that I am happy just because I like to play a football game and not necessarily because of being social that day. This would mean that physical activity is the moderator between my happiness and social life. However, the correlation between happiness and my social life is stronger thus I would guess that I kind of like my friends :). This shows that it is very hard to make conclusions on just this dataset, more thorough analysis would be make things more clear. Nonetheless, this very complex web shows clearly that changing (little) things in my life can have a huge impact on many other things in my life (is this the butterfly effect?). For example, if I would become very ill suddenly, I won’t just feel ill; I probably would become less social, lonelier, more stressed, and less happy. But would it be the illness itself that would make me unhappy? The stress? Or the loneliness? That’s hard to determine but interesting nevertheless.

The absence of strong correlations
I have lot of significant correlations in my life. Nonetheless, there aren’t that many strong correlations, my highest score is a relation of 0,72. A correlation strength of 1 would mean that if one thing happens is it (almost) guaranteed that the other thing also happens (but we’ll never know for sure). For example, when I have a stressed day I am often unhappy that day. But because my correlation strength is 0,72 (and not 1) this means that this is not always the case. Sometimes, I can be happy and stressed at once! What’s to learn about these correlations is that the (many) weak correlations show that life isn’t that fixed. Things can change and you are still in control. You are the boss of your life and you can compensate, balance, and change things until you found your perfect fit.

We are expected to have friends, to be physically active, and to be productive. But this piece of data showed that you can’t have it all. If you focus on certain aspects in your life, you likely have to let go of the others. Letting things go is often hard for us. Accepting that your social network will decline because you want to pursue a career is not an easy step for example. Nonetheless, dilemmas like these are huge and we are dealing with them every day. Often, we just make gut-decisions concerning these issues and see the result of it later on. I think it is a pretty big issue to make such life-choices on just gut-decisions. In my opinion, it is wise to use data to review our (past) life once in a while to see what the impact was of our life-choices. Through the knowledge of data we might make better and more educated choices in the future.


  1. John

    I’m not sure if using plain correlations for such graphs is the way to go. It is generally much more interesting to look at the partial (regularized) correlations between each of the variables. This way you will see less spurious correlations in your graph. Also see for more info.

  2. Gil Bell

    Life becomes complex when you fail to handle the mental demands. Normally, you will find complexity in your path to development. And to handle complexity, you will necessitate simplicity. That’s why life is known as a simple complexity. Dealing with complexity can never be. To bring simplicity, you need to solve the puzzle of complexity. For that, you have to sacrifice more. Also, eliminating self-limiting beliefs is a must- , when it comes to managing growing complexities of everyday life.


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