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The Long Tail of Love and the Psychology of Happiness

In a previous blog, we explore ‘the geometry of happiness’, the three essential dimensions of reality that must be enacted by a human being or collective in order to be happy: growth, integration and performance. It’s the Pythagorean of happiness. However, one would naturally ask, if it’s that simple and obvious, how come that there is so much misery in the world? The short answer is that not many people recognize the geometry explicitly and even fewer have developed the discipline and skills to organize their lives according to the three principles. Correction to the former is relatively straight forward. Most adults possess sufficient mental capacity to understand the geometry of happiness if they take the time to reflect and think through their own experiences of growing up and becoming who they are today. It is harder and slower, much harder and slower, for us to develop the behavioral skills to actually live our day to day lives according to the principles. Over time, we tend to accumulate a significant pocket or a long tail of behavioral deficiencies relative to our mental capabilities. At a certain point, our health and wellbeing as a natural organism is determined more by the size of such long tails than the depth of our intellect. In fact, the greater our intellect, the greater are the risks of us becoming dysfunctional due to the long tail. The Harvard psychologist, Robert Kegan, calls this phenomenon ‘immunity to change’ in a book of the same title (coauthor Lisa Lahey). Let’s look at a few practical situations to help us appreciate the power of the long tail. The first example is the rising tensions in the South China Sea between China and its smaller neighbors (e.g., Vietnam, the Philippines). The rapid economic development of last 35 years has created a very long tail for the Chinese people and government to evolve its traditionally tribal and nationalistic behaviors to the capitalistic and democratic norm that has produced and is needed to sustain its modern economy in the first place. China is throwing its economic muscle around just as every teenager does in every family. Merely condemning it does not help solve the problem as any experienced parents should know. As a second example, in businesses across North America and the developed world, cultural change has increasingly become a top agenda in the C suite. There is a clear recognition that the long tail is the root cause of diminishing innovation, productivity and competitiveness for businesses across industries and of all sizes. The organizational consultant Barry Oshry wrote an excellent book, ‘Seeing Systems’, describing in graphical detail the symptoms of the long tail as it manifests at all levels of organizational hierarchy. In short, everyone is quick to recognize and point out problems but slow, very slow, in changing behaviors – especially their own – that are often the primary or the root cause. Last but not the least, in American politics, both Democrats and Republicans are quick to expose misconducts by the other side but evade all questions about their own long tails of dysfunctional behavior, resulting in grid locks that have become the biggest threat to Western civilization and world peace since the two world wars and the cold war in the twentieth century.

Clearly, in order to live a good life or be happy in our time, we must be able to deal with the long tail. No one could expect to ride above the fray – our lives are so intertwined socially, economically and politically that the power of the long tail is felt by everyone everywhere everyday on the planet. Our initial reactions to the long tail are usually expressed in disappointment or even outrage: the potholes on our public road are ridiculous, the work hours are too long and wages too low and, if you are a teenager, our parents are rubbing us of our God given freedom. Our initial impulse is often to run away, to escape the problems that someone else has created and find a ‘clean’ piece of land to live and be happy ever after. This utopian idea could literally lead to quitting our jobs or running away from home. Many youth in the 60s journeyed East in search of such a paradise. However, when the paradise did not materialize, we shift our focus to blaming others for creating the mess. The villains could be anyone in authoritative positions or simply those unlike ‘us’, in dresses, skin colors, languages, sexual preferences, etc. Such hatred can become quite addictive and perpetuated for generations. If not cured, it ultimately leads to extreme fundamentalism based on prejudice of some kind. Suicide and death are the only predictable outcomes.

There are many things that could help to prevent and reverse this trajectory of negative expression of pend-up energy but perhaps the most critical step is a change of psychology, that is, learn to embrace the long tail as opportunities to fulfill our cosmic purpose and love versus a burden or drag to be put up with. The universe is up to something and we are here to facilitate its evolution above and beyond our short-term interests and suffering. Curiously enough, when we re-orient ourselves with the cosmos, many of our greatest struggles go away and the psychology of happiness has a chance to takes root. In the next blog, we’ll explore some practical examples and contexts where such a psychology of happiness unfolds and flourishes.

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