[Takes a deep breath, stands up, nervously un-creases dress by patting it with one hand, whilst tightening the hold on the piece of paper in the other. Looks out into the room, then towards the wedding party, smiles, and then looks back to the piece of paper]
“The Collins English Dictionary defines the noun love as ‘an intense emotion of affection, warmth, fondness, and regard towards a person or thing’.
As a transitive verb, love means ‘to have passionate desire, longing, and feelings for’.”
I’ve never done a wedding speech before. I’m open to offers. But mine wouldn’t start like that. I’d likely tell the joke about the time a minimalist walked into a bar.
I swear that one works after a few drinks.
Anyway, let’s cut to the good stuff. How does one get love?
I mean, if it was easy, we would all be in love, right? Or at least those of us who wanted to be, would.
You’d think that something that was a preoccupation of over 7.4 billion people would easily increase one’s odds of successfully having your heart grow three sizes (in the non-cardiomegalic way).
But yet it remains as difficult and elusive as gauging the correct amount of pasta to measure out prior to cooking.
Maybe it doesn’t need to be so elusive, though. Maybe it’s very straightforward. Maybe it’s just down to numbers…
We’ll go with the example of boy meets girl, but please substitute these genders for any identification you wish.
Picture, say, a coffee shop. One of those slightly wanky ones which does great coffee. It has those uncomfortable wooden stools and the bundle of magazines in the middle of the giant unvarnished table. No-one can reach the sugar, because it’s in the middle of the table, but you’ve ordered a flat white, and you can’t put sugar with that anyway, can you.
Two people – a man and a woman are crammed next to each other on said table. Of course there’s no room for elbows – it’s one of those coffee shops. You’re there for the coffee. They are forced to make eye contact due to the proximity. The woman notices the man is reading Shantaram. The man notices that the woman has got nice cursive handwriting. They glance at each other.
Of course I am being ridiculous here, but go with me on this.
Upon that first glance, the man has that innate tick that he likes the woman. That’s one possibility. But maybe the woman doesn’t like the man – she goes back to writing her letter, sipping the flat white – that too can occur. Maybe the woman is intrigued by the man’s literary choice and whimsically pictures them together running through a cornfield with the sun streaking through their hair (BTW, thanks Theresa for ruining that classic image for me). Maybe after that first fleeting moment NEITHER party likes each other. Finally, it could be that the man likes the woman and the woman likes the man; this last successful combination also carries an equal probability. So at this initial coffee shop stage, for the same two people to like each other carries a one in four chance of success.
That’s the same as saying, if everything is binary, there is a 75% chance of there ultimately not being love between these two, and a 25% chance of them falling in love.
Let’s say then that ‘love’ is hereby designated by the symbol ‘L’
So on first encounter (1L) L = 0.75f (or 75% chance of failure)
Similar scenarios which carry these odds of failure are:
- Successfully pickpocketing a character in the online game The Elder Scrolls
- Creating a new startup company which remains viable
- A footballer with aspirations of playing professionally not being relegated to amateur league by the age of 21
- Correctly gauging the amount of pasta to measure out prior to cooking
Now – how do you get this high failure rate down? A three quarters risk of the person of your dreams walking out the door after they have finished their coffee is unacceptable.
Well – you just need to have another encounter. Assuming you are in the 25% successful quarter, the man and the woman arrange to see each other again. Let’s see what happens with the odds of love now:
2L = 0.75f – we are still at the same odds for failure, but combine that with the first successful encounter and something sexy happens:
[1L (0.75f)] x [2L (0.75f)] = 0.56f (or 0.56% chance of failure)
Suddenly, the odds of failure and broken hearts has dropped to 56%. That means there is now a 54% chance of love-success.
And if this is to continue, it takes just 16 iterations (dates) for the risk of romantic failure to drop to just 1%:
[1L (0.75f)] x [2L (0.75f)] x [3L (0.75f)] x [4L (0.75f)] x [5L (0.75f)] x [6L (0.75f)] x [7L (0.75f)] x [8L (0.75f)] x [9L (0.75f)] x [10L (0.75f)] x [11L (0.75f)] x [12L (0.75f)] x [13L (0.75f)] x [14L (0.75f)] x [15L (0.75f)] x [16L (0.75f)] = 0.01f
That’s now just a 1% chance of waking up alone for the rest of your life. Blammo!
Sixteen encounters and all being even, that is a 99% chance of love. Or, assuming you have around two dates per week, two months.
That being said, there are tons of variables yet to include the above formula – it assumes that neither party has a change of heart during the process, outside of the ‘one in four’ options. It assumes that both parties remain available. And it assumes that the dates/encounters continue. Actually, it assumes a hell of a lot.
Okay, so this theory isn’t original. It’s based on the mathematical model of Geometric Distribution, and the practice of creating mathematical models to optimise and identify possibilities for love has been covered many times before in far greater detail by people such as Dr Hannah Fry in her TED Talk ‘The Mathematics of Love’, and her book of the same name. But it got me thinking how much of human connection is down to numbers, and how much is down to clunky luck/fate/timing/chloroform soaked rags.
Most other things in life seem more tangible than love. Careers, platonic friendships, that specific feeling of happiness garnered from watching ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ on Christmas Eve. So why is love so difficult and elusive?
For me, the basic concept of true love is having a best friend who will accept and love you unconditionally, AND want to bang* you. That’s not a whole lot to strive for I reckon. But yet the aspiration of drunkenly playing boardgames with your soulmate whilst listening to the rain thunder on the roof is very tricky to achieve, and the reality is instead solo-drinking wine on a Friday night, laying on the floor, listening non-ironically to Dido, while the towels you hung out in the garden to dry get soaked in a rainstorm because the weather app on your phone lied to you again.**
Is love difficult to find because each person’s view of love is different, and therefore it is difficult to find two people who are on similar wavelengths? Maybe. Is it because people are scared of being hurt, and scared of hurting others? Maybe that too. Is it because it’s work? Possibly. I mean, there is a whole list of things which make the search for love risky, painful, disappointing, stressful, unrealistic, annoying, and nothing like any romantic comedy we have ever been force-fed.
Regardless though of the odds against it, we should still try and find love. It’s important. However, with the advent of social media, mobile phones in every hand, and a lack of immediate necessity to actually talk to people, the art of swallowing your bile and just going over and introducing yourself sadly doesn’t really exist anymore. That’s a big hurdle. I mean, as I type this on my laptop, I have my back to the entire pub, and the hypocritical irony isn’t lost on me. But I do talk to people. I don’t care anymore about potentially embarrassing myself. And I can count on just one hand the number of times a ‘cold-introduction’ has gone badly, be it for casual conversation, a search for friendship, or more.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog article, all we have in life is people. That’s basically it. So why not get to know people/a person truly. Strip off all the layers of protection and lazy conditioning. Ignore the shouty voice of assumed rejection and just take the risk of being exquisitely hurt, or maybe exquisitely loved. Either option is less beige than the passive alternative.
The logic of maths when it comes to love and emotional decision-making is enlightening, and as a way of rationalising the limitless, it is fascinating. But perhaps as a starting ground, I think you can get through life on a good footing if you approach things by simply being willing to take a risk.
Be brave, be willing to fail, be willing to succeed, and keep your sleeve rolled up so that your heart is visible (for the right person).
My sincere thanks to two thirds of the Festival Of The Spoken Nerd; physicist Helen Arney and mathematician Matt Parker (www.festivalofthespokennerd.com), and mathematician Timandra Harkness (www.timandraharkness.com) for indulging me in debate on this topic, despite I am sure, having far better things to do.
* substitute your own choice of word here for intercourse. Personally I’d go with ‘do sex’ or ‘make love’, depending on the situation, because I’m an awkward romantic. Gimme a break.
** extrapolated from personal events