Sex, Love and the Long Bottom Line

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Passion and Companionship

Recently I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science. In the chapter on “Love and Attachments”, he talks about two kinds of love: passionate love and companionate love.

Passionate love is the love you feel when you first fall in love with someone. It is like a drug, a cocktail of tender and sexual feelings, elation and pain, anxiety and relief, altruism and jealousy. In contrast, companionate love grows slowly over the years and is defined as “the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined”.

Both types of love are crucial to our lives as human beings. Passionate love is important as it drives us to seek out and start love affairs. During these love affairs we have lots of sex, which (if nature has its way) leads to a baby. And hopefully all that fun time together will lead to the development of companionate love as well. Because after the passion of the love affair cools, companionate love needs to be there to keep us together in the long-term.

Without companionate love, couples would (and do) find it difficult to stay together long enough to raise their children to maturity. Thus, in the ancient world in which our brains evolved, a lack of companionate love could be the difference between death and survival for a couple’s children. If we hadn’t developed a way to form long-term bonds and develop sustainable relationships, then we may never have developed into the super-intelligent species we like to think of ourselves as today.*

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Plot of passionate vs companionate love over the first 6 months of a relationship.

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Plot of passionate vs companionate love over sixty years of a relationship.

What does this have to do with business?

Now what can this analysis of love tell us about the business world? As with love we need both short-term and long-term incentives. If we just have short-term incentives then we get nothing but various kinds of get-rich-quick schemes. The examples of short-term focused businesses are endless: from mining for diamonds at the expense of the environment, to running manufacturing plants with slave labour, to selling sugar water to kids at premium prices. All of these kinds of ventures sacrifice the long-term health of everyone for the short-term profit of a few. On the other hand, if the profits from business only started to show up after a few decades, then there would be very few people willing to take on the risks of entrepreneurship.

So short-term profits are good in that they provide businesspeople with the immediate incentives (and the ability to feed their families) that they need to create new ventures. But without long-term incentives, when the short-term is all that matters, some really awful businesses can result. To be blunt, without long-term incentives, without “companionate” love for the long-term health of a business, people will just do what is natural and move on to find another area of the economy to f***.

However, when long-term and short-term incentives are combined, you have great potential for profitable, sustainable businesses that will be more valuable for their owners in the long-run. The kinds of businesses I would be happy to invest in. Like a diamond miner that works to make sure they don’t damage the environment, and then sells their diamonds at a premium to eco-conscious consumers. Or a healthy drinks company that becomes the exclusive supplier to schools around the world because they don’t sell over-priced sugar water. Or an investment firm that structures deals for its clients which actually have clear understandable benefits for them and not just for the financial wizards who created the deal**.

According to Haidt humans developed love through evolution so that we could be more successful in the long-run. We could have kept running around the plains of Africa, bonking each others brains out (both literally and figuratively). This might have been a lot of fun and involved a lot of passion. However, we would probably have never developed the large brains that have enabled us to dominate the planet. But now that we do dominate the planet our ability to continue evolving, without destroying the planet or each other, is being put to the test. It seems to me that in business, as in love, we need both passion in the present and commitment to the future.

“Where there is love, there is life.” – Mahatma Gandhi


*Haidt points out that the most plausible theory for why love developed in humans has to do with the narrow pelvis required for upright walking and our large brains. The result of this mismatch between large head and narrow birth canal is that babies are born in an unusually undeveloped state when the brain is still small. In humans, the brain grows rapidly for two years after birth, followed by a slower but continuous increase for another twenty years. Humans are the only creatures on Earth whose young are utterly helpless for years, and heavily dependent on adult care for more than a decade. Furthermore, studies of hunter-gatherer societies show that mothers cannot collect enough calories to keep themselves and their children alive, so they require the support of an active father.

**As a trained financial wizard myself I’m more than happy for bankers to make lots of money. It’s just that I realise that if they stop screwing their clients, then they can make much more money over their entire careers than they’re likely to make from a few golden years of cheating people.

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