When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back

UniverseI used to think of the universe as a rational, uncaring machine. If this, then that.

And given that our world, never mind our universe, is so large, I couldn’t see how we could make much of a practical difference.

But as I grow older, I’m not so sure. And that’s changed how I act throughout the day.

Our affect on other people

A social network

A social network

It’s not surprising that our actions affect other people we’re connected to. But in reading “Connected”, I was struck by the kinds of effects we have on each other. And that the effects measurably spread to people 3 degrees from me, to the friends of my friends’ friends.

“…networks influence the spread of joy, the search for sexual partners, the maintenance of health, the functioning of markets, and the struggle for democracy. Yet, social-network effects are not always positive. Depression, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, financial panics, violence, and even suicide also spread. Social networks, it turns out, tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with.”

So, via my social network, my behavior has an impact on people I may never have met. And their behavior affects me, too.

Our affect on events

Plum pudding

Plum pudding

Other books, particularly those of Martha Beck, verge on the mystical in suggesting we can affect events in seemingly magical ways. She caught my attention when she referred to a book by the famous psychologist, Carl Jung. In  “Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principle” he wrote at length about meaningful coincidences that can’t reasonably be explained as chance but for which there’s no other cause.

Jung, for example, tells the story of a woman relating her dream about a golden scarab when, at that very moment, there’s an insistent tapping at the window. Jung opens the window and catches a small insect as it flies inside: a golden scarabaeid beetle.

Jung offers these stories, including this charming one below, not as proof but as examples of how meaningful coincidences happen in everyday life.

“A certain M. Deschamps, when a boy in Orleans, was once given a piece of plum pudding by a M. de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum pudding was already ordered – by M. de Fortgibu. Many years afterwards, M. Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was M. de Fortgibu. A that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of disorientation walked in: M. de Fortgibu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake.”

Jung’s contribution is asserting that in addition to space, time, and causality, there is another connecting principle at work. He’s fully aware that such a principle is dismissed by most “educated” people. And he doesn’t proclaim to know why or how these meaningful coincidences happen. But he finds a common thread in the work of sources ranging from ancient Greek and Chinese scholars to 20th-century physicists: “the world is one being, a visible God…”

Our affect on the universe

Butterfly EffectIs it possible that we’re all connected on some unconscious level?  Or, more generally, that there are other connecting principles we simply don’t understand? Modern science, far from disproving that such principles exist, seem to suggest more and more of them. For example, there’s the Butterfly Effect from chaos theory:

“Small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system.”

So even the smallest of actions (a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing) can have dramatic and far-flung consequences (a hurricane in New York).

Odder still is something called quantum entanglement from quantum physics. It describes how two particles may be “connected” in such a way that no matter how far apart they are an action on one particle has an immediate and predictable effect on the other.

“To make an analogous experiment, a coin might be sliced along the circumference into two half-coins, in such a way that each half-coin is either “heads” or “tails”, and each half-coin put in a separate envelope and distributed respectively to Alice and to Bob, randomly. If Alice then “measures” her half-coin, by opening her envelope, for her the measurement will be unpredictable, with a 50% probability of her half-coin being “heads” or “tails”, and Bob’s “measurement” of his half-coin will always be opposite, hence perfectly anti-correlated.”

Wait. What? How could things and events at arbitrary distances possibly affect each other? What’s the link? No wonder that Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.”

What difference will you make?

So, what difference could you make? Will you make?

What affect will it have if, say, you’re angry at other drivers or condescending to the waitress? Or if you thank someone for their work or say “good morning” to a stranger?

You don’t know.

But I take comfort in feeling that we’re more connected to people and things than we previously thought. That even our smallest actions can have a positive affect well beyond what we could imagine. That when we smile at the universe, the universe smiles back.


About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back

  1. Brendan Francis says:

    Hey John,

    Wanted to wish you and yours all the very best for Christmas and the New Year!

    I hope you have a relaxing break and I look forward to catching up on the other side.

    Thanks for the thought provoking blogs this year too!!


    Brendan Francis CEO Americas & EMEA Fulton Francis Consulting

    +1 917 340 1337


  2. maratolja says:

    Love this blogpost, THIS is your best one. I was watching the movie “Magnolia” for the first time last night, and it got me thinking about the connectedness of the universe. About karma, and how a simple smile can make its way back to you. (It’s a long film). And then here I am, the next day reading this blog. Have a lovely Christmas, looking forward to reading more in 2014.

  3. Peggy Drew says:

    I love this post! My own blog is called “Connecting” so this intrigued me. I’ve loved your posts since I first found you. I don’t follow many blogs but your thoughts resonate with me.
    Peggy Drew, Agile Program Manager in Boston

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Peggy. I just read your last few posts. In the most recent one, “A Distractable Mind”, you allude to experiences which could be dozens of powerful stories on their own. A home hospice nurse? A young daughter with cancer? So much to live through.

      I wish you all the best this coming year.

  4. ADAM MAYER says:

    Reblogged this on adam's quest and commented:
    We are all connected. What influence and affect will you have on people today?

  5. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Thanks for highlighting this fascinating topic John – a great blog!

    Celebrations at this time of year are often about connecting with people near and far – and what difference you will make by connecting with them!
    But of course this is the smaller more immediate picture – not the bigger one you are talking about.
    What’s really difficult to measure is the difference that affect will have, where and to whom? As you say “You don’t know”.

    People like the unknown because it gives them a sense that you just can’t explain everything that happens – including the not so good things. They are fascinated by the unknown because there seems no logic and it introduces a sense of excitement and mystery to logically planned lives. This is why “coincidence” is positively sought, celebrated, told as stories again and again “what were the chances of that happening?” They defy physics, planetary law and mathematics – or so it seems!!
    But I would have to agree with Carl Jung’s theory that there is more of a connecting principle at work than we would like to imagine and it all comes down to who we are and what paths we follow.
    Take the wonderful plum pudding story you tell: M Deschamps clearly had a link with M. de Fortgibu (perhaps family friends or lived in the same neighbourhood) or he would not have been offered plum pudding by him as a boy. The plum pudding clearly made an impression on the boy which didn’t fade with time so when already heightened to the idea, he noticed it in a Paris restaurant. Mr Fortgibu probably has a French connection and either got his sensational pudding always ordered from France or equally sought it out when abroad. The two men were clearly of a certain class and “worldliness” than enabled such treats and provided the opportunity for travel. Finally the fact that M.de Fortgibu turned up at the M Deschamps at the moment he was eating his plum pudding is less coincidental as I’m sure he knew the family well, lived in the same neighbourhood and as anyone who has cared for an elderly person will know the mind wonders more clearly back to places and associations that were meaningful. So how “coincidental” was it that he turned up at this house? Was the story a meaningful coincidence or a meaningful connection?

    Once I was on a packed commuter train at an underground station in London.
    There was a problem. The train doors were still open but no-one was on the platform – all crammed in the train instead. I was near the door and poked my head right out to see if I could see what was happening. At that precise moment a woman stepped off the train on to the deserted platform, stopped and looked at me – a look of astonishment from a long lost friend I hadn’t seen or heard from for 20 years. I could explain how it happened but I won’t. At that moment the power of coincidence was overwhelming and the thought that connections can be as fragile as they are strong.

    I’m not sure what and if I will ever make a difference personally– but I do feel sure that “connectedness” makes a big difference in all areas of life and that the smallest actions have a bigger affect where that process is realised more readily.

    I wish you well for the forthcoming year and all seasonal celebrations in between!

    Thank you

  6. John Stepper says:

    Shortly after I wrote this, I came across this quote from Fred Rogers (aka “Mr. Rogers”):

    “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

    Maybe it was just a coincidence. Or maybe the universe was telling me it Like-d my post. 🙂

  7. Jon Bidwell says:

    Merry Christmas..!
    A friend once told me that God was simply the being that knew all possible outcomes, the ones that actually came to pass were the result of exercising free will. Or a less theological version from a former colleague working in Bermuda…”you are polite to everybody, even the idiot mechanic that promised your car would be ready five days ago, since this place is as though Charlottesville VA became a country and the guy could be the second cousin of the Finance Minister that regulates our company.”

  8. Meena says:

    Every time I read your blog I learn something new!

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