July 14, 2009

Aristotle's insight on avoiding excess and aiming for the intermediate is useful for solution-focused change and positive psychology

"One ought to choose that which is intermediate, not the excess nor the defect, and the intermediate is determined by reason."
This is a quote by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics VI.1). What interests me in this quote by Aristotle is that is draws attention to the fact that in life often 'the more the better' is not valid. In many situations it seems to be true that there can be too much of a good thing and that moderation is wise. I have written several times about this idea. Here are some examples. The post Good enough is the goal argues that the goal of the solution-focused approach is not to achieve an ideal state (a perfect future), but, instead, to achieve a situation that is good enough (this can be quite good though). The post Pacing: helping clients find an optimal speed of change discusses the idea that there is such a thing as changing too fast. The post How happy is happy enough? quotes Ed Diener who says it may be counterproductive to focus extremely on pursuing happiness.
The post Optimal happiness level mentions a book chapter by Shigehiro Oishi and Minkyung Koo in which they discuss several studies which suggest that the optimal level of happiness may not always be the highest level. Finally, the post The Optimal Zone Scale presents an adaptation I developed (during a conversation with a client) of the regular scaling intervention. The desired range on this optimal zone scale is the middle area. (A description of my optimal zone scale will be published in a forthcoming book edited by Thorana Nelson)
Anyone got more information or examples of the value of the intermediate?


  1. I don't know if this is related but I can confirm something from my own experience.

    At one point in my life I decided to put an upper limit on my earnings. 1500 EURO/month seamed like a good upper limit. It is not a high income but it is not a low income either, considering that I live in Romania.

    This made me extremely relaxed from a money point of view. I didn't actively wanted anything more. And since I already earned above this amount I could feel like I already arrived at the top of what I wanted.

    This also allowed me to explore passion over money. So... opportunities for more passion rather than more money. And this changed my priorities, a lot.

    The success I had with this thought experiment was so great that it encouraged me to push it even further. I started to think about how low can I go and soon realized that money started to have very little influence on me. I could get by with very little. This gave me a feeling of freedom that I cannot describe.

  2. Hi Peter, thank you. I think this type of moderateness would certainly qualify in the eyes of Aristotle. it is a very good example of the difference between satisficing and maximicing. As Herb Simon said, it is in our nature to be satisficing.

  3. In Nonlinear dynamics the more could be different, i.e. at some point you pass a certain threshold and things change.
    E.g. heartbeat: increasing it for training purposes is good, but after a certain threshold the heart beats so fast it does not pump anything anymore, it does not have time to fill up with blood.
    E.g. the story goes that when engineer created a silos for the Space Shuttle to protect it from the elements, the silos was so big it had its own micro-climate!!

  4. Hi Paolo, thank you. the connection to complexity theory is very relevant I think.

  5. I have seen this model applied elsewhere. It was a model for what behavioral qualities it's good to have. It takes the form of antinomies, as seen here:

    Respectful, not Disrespectful, but not Obedient.

    Patient, not Impatient, but not Long-Suffering.

    Curious, not Uninterested, but not Probing.

    Caring, not Indifferent, but not Attached.

    Humble, not Boastful, but not Meek.

  6. Hi Nikolay, thanks. What model was that? Do you have a reference?

  7. Hi Coert. This model was from an e-brochure on improving your social functioning from the Pick-up community. It's a curious read. If you want, I could send it to you.

  8. Okay, why not? Btw I have no idea what is 'the Pick-up community' is ...

  9. The concept is relatively new, but the Pickup techniques have been gaining popularity in recent years. It relies heavily on Social Psychology, NLP, and other things. The Pickup techniques are interesting, but they are a recipe for becoming a "Social robot" and losing your identity in the process. Not sure if you can understand, but you can read more of it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_community

  10. Thanks Nicolay. So this is not about pick up trucks but pick up lines :). I'll have a look at it.

    I remember Derren Brown has a nice video about picking up supermodels in which he uses some mind tricks too: http://bit.ly/W1wqy

  11. It's not exactly about pick-up lines, because if pick-up lines worked, everyone would have been using them :)

    Here's an example of what the pick-up artists do:


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