Is There An Equation For Happiness?

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Emotional Equations In 2007, Chip Conley wrote one of our favorite business books, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow. The book documented how, as the CEO of the large boutique hotel company Joie de Vivre, Chip used Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to create happier employees and customers during the last downturn. He’s out with his newest book, Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success, and it’s as good as the last one, ranking #7 on this week’s New York Times bestsellers list.

We asked Chip a few questions about how emotions and math can be combined.

DH: Why is the use of emotional equations helpful during difficult economic times?
Chip Conley: I believe that when the world is full of external chaos, we yearn for internal logic to help illuminate solutions in our lives. Rather than look for the light at the end of the tunnel, I found that using these equations was a way of lighting a metaphorical candle to create some emotional clarity.

DH: You define despair as suffering minus meaning (Despair = Suffering – Meaning). What does that mean?
CC: Viktor Frankl’s landmark book “Man’s Search for Meaning” was my salvation 3-4 years ago when I was going through a depressing time. I turned that profound book into this equation so that it could serve as a daily reminder or mantra on a bad day. Suffering is basically a constant in life. If you’re a Buddhist, that’s the first Noble Truth, but it’s just as relevant in a punishing recession and in many relationships. Meaning is the variable – it’s what you make of it. The way this equation works, if you increase the meaning of something and suffering stays constant, then despair declines. For me, it meant I was asking “What’s the lesson or learning in this?” Often, I had to think of life as sort of an emotional boot camp and that the way I created meaning from a challenging situation was to imagine what emotional muscles I was training – whether it’s resiliency, humility, compassion, or courage – that could serve me later in life.

DH: Tell us about your equation for Happiness (Wanting What You Have / Having What You Want).
CC:After I learned the Despair equation, I was fascinated by the opposite end of the spectrum: what are the ingredients for Happiness? I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Bhutan to spend a week with the folks who started creating the Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan nearly 40 years ago (today, more than 50 countries around the world have created a similar index). An alternative way of looking at this equation is Happiness = Practicing Gratitude / Pursuing Gratification. When you appreciate or want what you have, that’s a form of practicing gratitude, something that is foundational for many devotional practices – like Buddhism in Bhutan. In the U.S., we are proud of our “pursuit of happiness” and the fact that it’s even in our Declaration of Independence, but if you read some dictionary definitions of pursuit (“to chase with hostility”), you understand the risks associated in the denominator. Many of us pursue our goals or gratifications so aggressively that we end up on the hedonic treadmill constantly chasing the next shiny object or opportunity. When we’re bottom-heavy in this equation and too focused on pursuit, we lose track of our quickest means of creating happiness: the practice of wanting what we have or gratitude.

Chip Conley

DH: You say that Happiness is different than Joy. Tell us more.
CC:First off, I was lucky enough to spend time with some of the world’s psychology luminaries like Sonja Lyubomirsky (who wrote “The How of Happiness”) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Flow”). I was able to read what great philosophers and writers have written about the subject as well. For example, Socrates sums up the Happiness equation when he wrote, “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Similarly, the author JD Salinger wrote, “The singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid.” Happiness often comes from external “happenstances,” while joy seems to bubble up from a well deep inside. After talking with lots of “joy experts,” I came to the conclusion that there are two gladiator emotions that jump into the ring each day: love and fear. Think of a pie chart with just two pieces that represent these two emotions. Love crowds out fear and fear evaporates love. And, ultimately, the sense of elation that comes from focusing on love and diminishing fear down to zero is joy. So, the equation is Joy = Love – Fear. For me, Happiness is the emotion that propels me through my day and is more tangible in my life. But, as the guy who chose to call his company Joie de Vivre (Joy of Life), I’ve got a certain bias for the ephemeral, yet powerful emotion of Joy.

DH: So, have you really found combining emotions and math to be helpful in your life?
CC: Math is the study of relationships, the relationship of numbers. But, why not use it to understand the relationship of our emotions? If I can understand that the two ingredients that tend to create Anxiety are Uncertainty and Powerlessness, I can focus on what I do know and what I can control in order to reduce my sense of fear. It’s that simple.

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