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Chip Conley: Emotional Equations, Love and Meaning

How emotional equations can enrich our lives and our relationships

Chip Conley is the New York Times Bestselling author of four books including Emotional Equations, and PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow. He is the Founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, and has created more boutique hotels than anyone in the world. Chip speaks around the world on how to find meaning at the intersection of business and psychology. He recently traveled to Bhutan to study its Gross National Happiness index, the country's unique method of measuring success and its citizens' quality of life.

Ken: Chip, I’m delighted to interview you. Your life and your work have inspired so many of us. You are someone who struggles to make your life reflect your values—even when doing so is hard. Much of your audience Your concept of emotional equations is an extremely helpful tool for understanding the deeper workings of our emotional lives, and I’m very pleased to share it with my readers.

Can you explain emotional equations and tell us how you discovered them?

Chip: I was reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl during a very difficult point in my life. Frankl’s perspective is that meaning is the fuel of life. He writes about getting to test that theory while he was in concentration camp: Can the idea of meaning actually keep people alive?

Well, I was going through a really tough time about four years ago. I was the CEO of a company with 3,500 employees. When you’re a CEO or any kind of leader, you’re the emotional thermostat of those whom you’re leading. At that time, I felt that my emotional thermostat was very low. A lot of things were going wrong in my life, and I was almost in a state of desperation. I felt like I needed to take the profound content of Man’s Search for Meaning and turn it into something that was actionable on a daily basis. Math is about relationships--the relationship of numbers--but I decided that maybe it could be about the relationship of emotions. Specifically, I wanted to find a meaning equation that was solution-driven, simple and concise. At the time I had no idea that there was going to be a book in it. I was just trying to fix my life.

This is the equation I started with: despair equals suffering minus meaning. Let me explain the “sacred algebra.” If you’re going through a period of suffering, like Victor Frankl in a concentration camp, or me in my own mental prison, it’s as though everything is going wrong, as though you’re in a downward spiral. When you’re in that place in life, suffering does feel like a constant.

If you believe in Buddhist philosophy and thinking, the first noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering is ever present. So think of suffering as the constant. Think of meaning as the variable. If you remember back to algebra, there is often a constant and a variable in an equation. If suffering remains the constant, then when you increase meaning (the variable) despair goes down.

Despair equals suffering minus meaning.

Let me do the simple math so that it makes sense…. 8 = 10-2. Despair (8) equals suffering (10) minus meaning (2).


So if meaning goes up from 2 to 3, the despair goes down from 8 to 7.

When meaning goes up, despair goes down. This equation helped me to see that meaning and despair are somewhat inversely proportional, so the more I could find meaning in my life, the more I would reduce my despair.

And so, when I came home from a really rough week at work, I began to do an emotional inventory. And of course 2008 was just a terrible year, and 2009 looked to be even worse. I would come home and ask myself “So what emotions did I learn this week? It was like I was a kindergartener learning my emotions. Did I learn humility this week? Vulnerability? Authenticity? Courage? And then I’d make a list of each of those and then write three or four sentences about how I was going to use that emotion to serve me next week. I know this sounds almost like elementary school homework, but I considered it emotional boot camp and knew that I was starting to exercise emotional muscles. It’s like you go back to the gym in January, and when you start again, you realize you have physical muscles in your body that you didn’t know existed. When you’re going through a really difficult time, and going through emotional boot camp, you start realizing you have emotional muscles in your body. And that’s what I did. I actually focused on those muscles and asked “how is humility serving me? How is vulnerability serving me? How are courage and resilience serving me?” I got to a place where I started feeling better about things, and as I felt better about myself, I started to teach emotional equations within my company to our leaders, particularly the equation I just described. Because as we went into 2009, it was very apparent that it was going to be a terrible year. And that’s how it all started.

Ken: Do you have any thoughts on how this same equation might apply to heartbreaks around relationships?

Chip: I have lots of thoughts on that. I had a relationship that ended three years ago in the worst time of my life; two or three years which were a “dark night of the soul.” Initially, of course, all I felt was the suffering. But then, I started to look for the meaning within this ending. It was not my choice, frankly. The relationship was a bit of my life preserver. I see clearly today that this eight-year relationship was not a bad relationship, but it was not a soul-nourishing one. It was not one that helped me to live up to who I am as an individual. In fact, it was sort of holding me back. It was providing me comfort, I will tell you that--and at a time when I felt very uncomfortable. But I realized what a toll it was taking on me. You know, there are lots of ways to provide comfort to ourselves that can create a toll on us. We eat too much. That creates comfort, and it creates a toll as well. We watch too much TV. That creates comfort and then our brain goes dead. In my case, my relationship was giving me comfort, but it wasn’t nourishing me in ways that would take me to the next place in my life. So yes, I think that it’s very useful to be able to look and evaluate a breakup--especially when it’s not your choice--and think “Okay, what’s the meaning of this? What’s the wisdom? What emotions am I feeling and how are those emotions going to serve me?” It really helped me get clarity about what I was looking for in my next relationship.

Ken: Are there any other emotional equations that relate specifically to our deepest intimate relationships?

Chip: This equation may seem very familiar to people who are familiar with the course in miracles, or abundance theory or even the law of attraction. The idea is that there are two primary motivators in life, and they get in a wrestling match every day. Love and fear. And here is the relationship between love and fear in an equation perspective: If you have love minus fear, you get joy.

Joy is a different emotion than happiness. J.D. Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye once wrote, “Happiness is a solid, and joy is a liquid.” Now in essence what he was saying is that joy is what comes from deep inside you, while happiness quite often happens due to certain circumstances. So since joy equals love minus fear, when you can shrink fear down to close to zero, (who knows if you can do that very often!) then interestingly enough, the way the equation works is that joy equals love. And I have to tell you, when I’m in my most joyful moments, when I really feel most full of joy, I also feel most full of love. The love and the joy do feel synonymous. They feel like there’s an equal sign between them. And that’s how the math works… Joy equals love minus fear. If you have fear equal zero, then it’s just joy equals love. So, how do I use that? I use that as a reminder on a regular basis. When I’m full of fear, I’m real clear and I ask myself, where’s the love in this? Quite often, you know, love and fear are a zero-sum game. I like to think of it as a pie chart. I call it the joy bubble. The joy bubble has two pieces to it. It has love and fear, and the way a pie chart works is that the bigger love is, the smaller fear is. The bigger fear is, the smaller love is. So, building the love is a way to eradicate the fear. So I use that when I’m feeling a little tender around somebody, maybe somebody that I’m dating and it’s a new thing, and I feel a lot of fear. I realize all that fear is getting in the way of not just my love, but actually my joy too. And you know, for all of us in life, we tend to be a lot more magnetic and attractive when we are full of joy.

Ken: Could you speak about gratitude and its relationship to happiness?

Chip: Happiness has a lot to do with practicing gratitude and practicing gratitude is a form of generosity. I want to speak about practicing gratitude for a moment. The fastest way to feel happiness on four different continents is to feel gratitude and to practice it. It’s probably true on all seven continents but on four continents there are actually studies that show this. Just to experience gratitude and to practice it. And if you just experience it but don’t practice it, then it’s like buying a birthday gift for someone and not giving it to them. So, you know, make sure you give it to them and do it in an authentic way, and what you find out is another domino effect, because when you’re giving gratitude to people, that does tend to come back.

Ken: Your story, both personally and professionally, is the story of someone who has really lived that as a mission. Is there any last thing you want to say to readers who are on their own intimacy journeys?

Chip: I’d like to say something about curiosity. The truth is that curiosity is a life-affirming emotion. When we’re most struggling with something, I think one of the best things to do is to really be curious about what’s to be learned from it. It’s easy to jump to conclusions quickly. The initial reaction you have seems like the key thing you’re supposed to learn from it, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the biggest learning is coming soon. I learned that at a point when I had a collection of friends who committed suicide, and I certainly imagined it myself. I didn’t ever get to that state of trying to do anything. Yet who knew that two years later I’d have a New York Times bestseller and I would’ve sold my company, whose very survival I was struggling with, and that I’d be in a place where I really felt the liberation of my emotions.

Ken: Chip, this was wonderful. Thanks so much.

Chip: Thank you, Ken, for giving me the opportunity to connect with your readers.

© 2012 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved

 Shambhala Publications
Source: Shambhala Publications

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