“The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire… the salvation of man is through love and in love.” - Viktor Frankl
In the thirteenth century, the Roman Emperor Frederick II decided to investigate what the inborn language of mankind was, doing so by raising a group of children in seclusion who would never hear any form of speech. The babies were physically cared for, but never spoken to. All of the babies died before he could discover any inborn natural language.
We were made to love. Throughout our evolution, we have adapted to depend fiercely on others, beginning with receiving love from our parents and slowly expanding to our partner, family and community. Human beings have the longest developmental period of any animal in the world, and without a sustained bond to others, we would not survive. As Frederick’s horrifying investigation tells us, the satisfaction of our physical needs is not sufficient - we also need to experience true connection with those who care for us.
Despite its biological basis, love is something that consistently challenges us as individuals and as a society. If we were made to love, why is it sometimes so difficult? Why does the world seem to be such an unloving place? What gets in our way?
Changing our definitions
Love, as many of us currently understand it, is often limited to the small circle of individuals surrounding us: our partner, our children, our immediate family members, our close friends. Positive relationships are shown to be the single strongest predictor of happiness, infused as they are with love, kindness and care. However, research also tells us that we limit our well-being potential by viewing these relationships as the only venue for experiencing love. Despite the fact that we have never been wealthier or safer, our level of well-being in the United States is declining. Love is at the nexus of well-being, and those who wish to help others, build positive organizations and societies, and be happy themselves can begin by choosing to view and embody love as a way of being.
This definition is more encompassing, more forgiving, more compassionate, more honest, and more transformative. It is an understanding of love that can make space for our differences while not diminishing them, one that encourages respect and care for all living beings everywhere, and one that inspires life-giving benefits for both the giver and the receiver. Love as a way of being is about choosing to bring love to your interactions with yourself, with others and with the world.
The science of love
Recent research from the field of positive psychology can help us to transform our outdated definition, which will then have a downstream influence on our choices and actions. Barbara Fredrickson, the foremost researcher of positive emotions, has pioneered a line of research that shows us that love is far broader than what we might expect: the emotion of love can happen between any two people who feel safe while connecting in person. When this connection happens, the two people involved actually experience a synchrony between their biochemistry and behaviors, resulting in a desire to invest in one another’s well-being. Love is not fenced off to your existing relationships, and it does not require a prerequisite investment of time - it is a momentary experience that can occur between any two people who connect.
This experience of love also leaves both parties better off than they were before. Research has found that individuals who regularly experience these micro-moments of love have lower blood pressure and fewer colds, and they are less likely to succumb to diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Conversely, a life without love is one that is characterized by more suffering: chronic loneliness has been shown to compromise the way that a person’s genes are expressed and be more damaging to your health than smoking cigarettes.
The cultivation of a loving self
We possess a natural bias to focus on the stimuli that is negative in our lives. We are also a mixture of dark and light, self-interested and other-interested, wavering between immediate satisfaction and future fulfillment. Many of the world’s religions have recognized this aspect of our nature, offering forms of training that seek to teach us how to cultivate our consciousness and handle our complex feelings and situations in a positive way. Cultivating love from within is a process that requires disciplining one’s consciousness to approach situations in a new way, a repeated exertion of our psychic energy in a direction that we have chosen. The father of psychology, William James, exhorted that the most important use of our energy can be found in translating our good thoughts into action, and over time, into habits. Can we make the presence of love within us a habit?
New studies are showing us that this indeed might be possible, and that love begins within us as the result of the way we choose to focus our attention. Meditation and other mind-training programs can help us on this path.
- One study selected participants at random to complete a trial period of loving-kindness meditation, a mind-training practice that is used specifically to direct one’s emotions towards warm and loving feelings towards oneself and towards others. This practice led to an increase of positive emotions both during the program and afterwards. In addition, the team was able to measure increases in a variety of personal resources such as self-acceptance, positive relations, and physical health, which resulted in greater satisfaction in life and fewer depressive symptoms.
- Another study facilitated a seven minute meditation in a laboratory setting and found that it increased feelings of connection between two strangers.
- Scientists at Stanford designed and launched a course that trains compassion within individuals. In a randomized trial, participants in this program experienced an increase in compassion for others and compassion for themselves.
The individuals in these experiments were self-generating their own positive emotion of love, simply by focusing their awareness appropriately. Once generated, they are able to avail themselves of the many benefits that I have previously mentioned, and most importantly, to prepare themselves to engage differently in the world around them. Interested in trying it out? Here is a guided recording of a loving-kindness meditation.
Translating love to others and the world
Love as a way of being means choosing to embody love in all of our interactions. Our days are filled with moments where we interact with the world and others in it, offering the opportunity for meaningful connection. From the barista serving you coffee, to the cleaning lady at work, to your aggravating boss, all of us have the opportunity to engage with others countless times throughout our day. By cultivating our capacity to love, we offer other human beings the great gift of love and the experience of belonging. We also then avail ourselves of the incredible impact of positive relationships, which is arguably the single most important feature of well-being.
One powerful study tells us about the ripple effects of love. Over a twenty-five year period, researchers studied 91 women who had been rescued from dysfunctional families and placed in an orphanages. They were looking to understand the factors that made these women good mothers. There were two predictors: the first was the ability to build relationships with their teachers as children, and the second was their husband’s quality of love and caring for them. Receiving love allowed these women to transcend their past traumas and to become more loving themselves, passing along this gift to their children.
Eventually, this love can extend even further, beyond one’s own immediate world. Buddhists define the concept of altruistic love as the wish that all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness, and the Nguni Bantu people use the word ubuntu to express the notion of loving others based on common humanity. What might our society look like if we all chose to cultivate our inner state of love and translate it to our individual domains, creating ripple effects of positivity that are infinitely extensible?
Part of love as a way of being is the recognition that there are times in which we will not show up the loving way that we want to. This type of loving is the work of a lifetime. We must be compassionate with ourselves, recognizing that while we might catch thousands of unkind thoughts passing through our heads or words slipping seemingly involuntarily from our mouths, that is not what matters most. Instead, what matters is that each time this occurs, we choose to return back to our intention: to love in the very essence of our being.
We can be inspired by the fact that love is possible even in the most devastating moments. Viktor Frankl, writing of his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps, remembers men who somehow found ways of offering love to their fellow prisoners who were suffering:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
This small act of love (an extraordinary one given the circumstances) was considered to be a beacon of hope for the other men, inspiring them to continue forward in their struggle to survive.
Love as a way of being is about choosing to be the beacon for those around you. I invite you to consider how this might transform your self, your life, your relationships, your work, and the world that we all share. Love begins with you, with me, with all of us. A world full of beacons - ordinary people who choose to love, always - is a goal to which we can all aspire.