The Cycle of Fulfillment: Tension and Release
Consistent failure to attain goals throughout life results in defeatism, low self-esteem or depression.
Ted Kaczynski, Industrial Society and its Consequences
The good things in life all follow the same cycle—tension and release.
I was listening to a favorite song with some friends the other day, when it hit me that most good art follows the same exact cadence—a build up with tension, and then a sweet release.
For modern music, this is the traditional verse and chorus structure (most obvious in electronic music with its drops), but of course you can hear this in classical music too.
Anything involving storytelling follows the same path—including movies, video games, books, etc. The details of the stories may change (and even then there are only like 5-6 story arcs that are repurposed), but they follow the problem (tension) and resolution (release) structure.
Why is this?
What is it about the cycle of tension and release that humans find so entertaining?
I have two possible (somewhat interconnected answers about this).
For one, tension and release is the story of our most basic desires.
Since the dawn of our species, tension and release has characterized our survival. We wake up everyday with hunger, thirst, sleep, and sexual urges that must be satiated. A large portion of our daily activities are geared towards satiating these urges.
There is the tension in working towards the quenching of these urges, whether it be actually farming or searching for food, or spending eight hours at work to have enough money to buy food, water and shelter.
Think about our ancestors—there was real tension in whether or not they’d live to see another sunrise everyday, and sweet release when they did.
Even religion and war, two of mankind’s most popular activities follow the tension and release pattern.
Religion teaches you to abstain, to sacrifice, and to repent—thus creating a lifelong tension that is only relieved when you die and are hopefully sent to heaven.
War is the same. Opposing factions battle ideologically, until the moment that the fight becomes real and blood is shed in order to find a resolution.
Most notably however, the biological urge that drives us the most is the hardest to obtain. Sex is the epitome of tension and release. You pursue someone, uncertain about the odds of your success, and then you finally succeed in your conquest.
Interestingly enough, our addiction to tension and release stems from the fact that the satiation of these biological urges lasts a very short time.
You have to chase after them each and every day. We’re chained to our natural stressors.
You can’t just have sex once in your life, eat one meal a week, or sleep once a month. We’re driven by these repetitive motivations, which must be satisfied before we start pursuing any higher goals (which also follow the tension and release system).
People who are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might see some parallels here.
The second answer may answer the question you all may have about the first. Matthew, it’s not that hard to obtain all these basic biological urges in this day and age. Modern society has such a high standard of living, that most functioning and productive citizens do not have to worry about getting a meal, a drink, and finding a place to sleep.
Even finding a job (not necessarily a career, or something you’re happy with) is fairly guaranteed.
Sex, depending on who you are, how you were raised, and where you live, is perhaps the only one that still has a degree of difficulty towards it.
Even then, with the increase in sex positivity, and the widespread acceptance of dating apps, it is easier than before to find a companion and/or someone to hook up with.
What does this mean?
The power process is gone. Having a goal, struggling, and then attaining it, that’s the basic cycle of human fulfillment.
The power process is a term that originated from from the Unabomber manifesto.
People are generally bored and unfulfilled in their everyday lives, so they fill the emptiness in their mind with trivial pursuits that have some sort of tension and release aspect.
This would explain why many young people turn to drugs, to find some sort of release and/or meaning.
It also explains why sex is one of the things that people spend the most time on—it’s one of the few parts of society that still provides a challenge.
Maybe that’s why good art has tension and release. A good artist recognizes the pattern of human fulfillment, and channels that in to their work.
Either way, the art is a substitute for a life filled with ambitious goals characterized by the tension and release that has driven our species for our entire history.