Chip Conley is a rare bird. He’s a successful entrepreneur, a provocative thinker, and — get this — a nice guy. Today, he’s out with his newest book, Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success, and it’s a gem. (Buy it at Amazon, or IndieBound.)

In the book, Chip uses the grammar and lexicon of arithmetic to some deeper truths about life. (Ex: Joy = Love – Fear.) Much like math itself, the technique is simple and elegant — so much so that I wanted to introduce it to Pink Blog readers.

In the short interview below, I ask Chip to explain three particularly intriguing emotional equations:

You define despair as suffering minus meaning (Despair = Suffering – Meaning). What does that mean?

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.

For Anxiety, you turn to multiplication. You say it’s the product of Uncertainty and Powerlessness (Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness). Explain.

Experts in Anxiety distill the ingredients down to two primary elements: what we don’t know and what we can’t control. I created an Anxiety Balance Sheet to assist with alleviating this debilitating emotion. Imagine something that’s making you feel anxious. Then, pull out a piece of paper and create four columns with the first one being “what I do know” about this issue that’s creating anxiety. The second column would be “what I don’t know” (these first two columns cover the “Uncertainty” part of the equation). The third column is “what I can influence” and the fourth is “what I can’t influence.” Take ten minutes to list as many items under each column as possible. What I’ve found is that most people are surprised when they have more items under the “good” columns (1 and 3) than they have under the “bad” (2 and 4). Additionally, you can look at what’s in column 2 (what you don’t know) and ask how could I learn more. In fact, if you’re worried you may lose your job, the answer may be to ask your boss if your job is in jeopardy. And, I’ve also seen people move items from column 4 to 3 by asking themselves, “How can I create some influence on this issue even though I’m not feeling it right now?” Just the act of getting logical and proactive about anxiety helps to loosen its grip on you.

Does that mean if we declare that we will never be powerless — that is, if we reduce the Powerlessness component to zero — we’ll be anxiety-free?

Provocative question. You may have heard about a social science experiment in which research subjects were given the choice of either receiving a very painful electric shock now or receiving half as painful of a shock sometime in the next 24 hours but at a time when they weren’t expecting it. The majority of people chose to experience the extra pain now since mental pain can be more threatening than physical pain (note to leaders: better to deliver bad news as early as possible). In an updated version of this study, they gave people the ability to have a little more power over when the shock could occur – I think it was within a one hour window – and this led people to being more inclined to choose the pain later rather than the excessive pain now. In a multiplicative equation, if one of the two variables edges toward zero, it takes away the combustibility. So, if you tell yourself that you have huge job insecurity which is leading to uncertainty, but you are doing all kinds of prep work (job interviews, making connections on LinkedIn, saving some money) that give you more of a sense of power, then it’s likely to lessen the feeling of anxiety.

Surprisingly, your equation for Happiness — which we often think of in terms of more — uses division. (Wanting What You Have / Having What You Want). How does that work?

I learned this one studying the Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan for a week three years ago. 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. So, yes Dan, in some ways, happiness does have an editing function.

17 Responses to “3 equations that can change your life”

  1. Hugh Culver says:

    I read Peak by CC last year and loved it. There is a certain clarity that he is bringing to some very complex topics (like anxiety and happiness) that I find refreshing. And when you look at his business and charitable successes it’s got instant credibility. BTW the White Swan Inn was a great stay with my kids!

  2. Chuk says:

    Sorry; those just all rub me the wrong way — reading them makes me think this guy is going to be out there charging people $500 a pop so he can read parts of his book at them in weekend seminars at a conference centre just outside of town.

    (And DOA did it first.)

  3. Mary C says:

    I tend to agree with Chuck. While the theory is interesting, that we can “rationalize” emotions like mathmatical equations, the truth of the matter is that emotions, like life, is not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in those equals (=) deductions/minuses (-) and multiplications (x). If controlling fear and finding happiness were that easy, therapists would be out of business 🙂

  4. Dan P says:

    Oh, I like this…. Giving it the ol “KISS”, keeping it simple. Theories that can be explained in layman’s terms. Considered it ordered!

  5. jodie thomson says:

    Hi maybe it is more Happiness = ignorance. I just wanted to comment on the Bhutan references. It really annoys me that the world still believes the mythology about Bhutan’s gross national happiness. It is book cooking at it’s best. How can a country that boots out one sixth of it’s population because they are not Buddhist and leaves them to live in over crowded refugee camps for years be considered a pin up for happiness? These refugees are now arriving in Canada, USA, Australia etc. after 15 years in the camps. Look them up and find out the whole story.

  6. Dr H V Somasundar says:

    Love,hate,greed,fear,anxiety etc; are hard to be bound in mathematical equations. They are in ones mind. The best way of controlling MIND is through “Yoga”

  7. Nina says:

    Good equations. I have another one from the Swedish writer Bodil Jönsson.
    The equation is for happiness/Luck.
    LUCK = Joy ^ 2 divided by the effort

  8. Randy says:

    Despair = Suffering – Meaning

    “if you increase the meaning of something and suffering stays constant, then despair declines.”

    Why doesn’t it increase as well… knowing why something bad is happening but I am powerless to change it is more painful.

    And this very point is reflected in the next equation – being powerless multiplies the anxiety.

  9. Marco A. says:

    HAhahha… Just how to invent something to survive..

  10. Matt Briggs says:

    Hey Dan,

    Would you consider going “potty” a mechanical skill? I recently purchased your book, and listened to your TED talk and barely started trying to potty train our 2 year old. Her Grandma offered her a treat for every time she goes potty, but we’re not sure if that is going to help or not. In fact a few days ago she went “poops” on the potty and we rewarded her with a treat, she thought that was cool, told us she had more poops coming, and sat on the potty for a few minutes only to find out no more poops were coming. She then realized she wouldn’t get anymore treats and broke down crying.

  11. Gael Lynch says:

    Thanks, Dan…for the interview. Chip, I believe the best pursuit of all is to gain a little more understanding of myself on this earth and how I can be the cause of problems for others. If I’m happy and grounded, the earth around me is much more peaceful. For the doubters up there…why isn’t a little simplification of these issues a breath of fresh air for you? It’s great to promote any idea that will help one individual calm his/her life’s anxieties and fears down. The ripple effect brings peace to us all! I say, go for it! People spend millions to over-complicate their thinking in therapy (though I do believe therapy/therapeutic programs are important), why not allow humans to find their way through simplicity with a few tools that help them to problem-solve and feel empowered themselves?

  12. Rowan Yeoman says:

    Hi Dan, I am a big fan of these kinds of simplifications as they can act as really useful rules of thumb for dealing with complex aspects of life. I have one concern with the Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness however. I think that this can be useful as a rationalization for dealing with acute anxiety, when recognising that the power/control we actually do (or could) have is enough to reduce our anxiety. However I think that the logical conclusion of this equation is that we require complete power/control in order to be free from anxiety. This is obviously unachievable. On the contrary, I think that having a life filled with Joy, Love, Happiness and minimal Despair and Anxiety comes from us learning to be okay with uncertainty and our inherent lack of control.

  13. Wonderful!! Emotional responses or reactions rule our lives when we lack understanding. Physical heart disease is the number one killer of the physical body and I say emotional heart disease is the number one killer of relationships; personal and business. Thank you for sharing this book.

    Angela Bertone

  14. Fadi El-Eter says:

    I have learned that the most important thing that a man should have is meaning for his life. Without a meaning/an aim, the man’s life is dull and worthless.

    Almost everyone knows that but rare are those who know how to create a meaning for their lives.

  15. I agree with Despair = Suffering – Meaning

    The danger is to be too simplistic in the meaning and confusing it with ‘why’. I don’t think it’s possible to understand this equation with out being spiritual and looking for a ‘higher’ meaning. If I have cancer, a doctor can technically tell me ‘why’ I have it. But if I believe that my peace and attitude in the midst of my suffering with be an inspiration to others, then I now have found meaning in my suffering.

  16. FooQ says:

    I had a particularly stressful day at work today. My supervisor coached me though it, and told me about the equation for stress. Something about increasing resources would decrease stress. Her advice was helpful in lowering my anxiety. She sent me the link to this page. Just downloaded the book on Kindle, and will read it this weekend as I try to recover from my super stressful week! (QUESTION – Does anyone monitor or answer these posts?)