Is It Naïve to Believe in Love?

Love plays a central role in our lives, e.g., the love for our partner, our children, friends, pets, others, as well as for ourselves. In this post, I am not addressing our struggle with romantic love, which has been the topic of some of my prior posts and which has as much to do with the dynamics of relationships as with love itself. Rather, I will focus on the general concept of love as found in both romantic and nonromantic contexts.

Love, as I define it here: the urge and continuous effort for the happiness and wellbeing of somebody or something, requires focus and devotion regardless of whether we apply it to a romantic or nonromantic setting. Foremost, love requires prioritization over other matters for it to be fully effective. We may say that we love our partner or our children but if we prioritize our career over spending time with them, we aren’t supporting that claim of love. Our love for them takes a backseat in this example, or at least it’s not as strong as it could be.

The key aspect here is our conscious or subconscious decision of priorities. Spending all of our time with our loved ones isn’t practically feasible, we do have to dedicate time to our work to support ourselves and our families—we don’t have much of a choice there. The situation is different if we devote more time than required for our job out of ambition to advance our career. In this situation, we may prioritize our career success over time spent with loved ones. There is no judgment implied here—some may say their ambition is fueled by the desire to provide for the financial security of their families—the example is to illustrate that there are competing challenges to our effort of love.

In the ideal scenario (from the prospect of love), we would devote all our time to love. Practically, the realities of life make it impossible to do that. As a result, we compromise and spend as much time and effort on love as we believe we can or should. How we strike this balance, however, determines our lives.

The extreme example of love is taught by Jesus.

In Matthew 22:36-40, it reads: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Clearly and unequivocally, Jesus places love and the love for God over everything in life. His teachings are consistent with this paradigm when he asks us to turn the other cheek when struck and to love even our enemies. Jesus also specifically discourages focusing on career or money when he advises against storing up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus preached that the way to enter heaven is to free ourselves from selfish temptations and to focus on love. One may interpret this literally or not. In the case of the latter, one may say Jesus recognized how to achieve a state of happiness in life.

However, the example of Jesus’ life demonstrates that such an extreme stance on love, while possibly ideal, is difficult to reconcile with the realities of life and society.

An example of the other extreme is the egotist who is entirely consumed with her/his advance and power in society with little regard for anybody else. As a fictional example, though based on real historical people, we can look to Charles Foster Kane in the movie “Citizen Kane”. After gaining power and wealth through a life of ruthless dealings he dies broken and alone, weeping for his childhood memories. In the end, all of Kane’s money and his societal standing meant nothing because he sacrificed love for them.

Most of us maneuver life somewhere on the spectrum between the extremes of Jesus and Charles Kane, balancing the demands of love with that of life. This blog post’s title relates to our thoughts about where we see ourselves on this spectrum. Charles Kane clearly viewed it foolish to believe in love; he considered it a weakness, a waste of time. His success in business and attaining prominence may prove him right—if that’s our goal in life. There is only so much time and effort we can spend on our life ambitions. If we devote a large portion to our career, there’s naturally less time left for love—and vice versa.

So, our decision to believe in love—and how much to believe in the importance of it—comes down to the central question of how we perceive ourselves in this world and what we want out of this life. Most people want to attain “happiness” in life. What constitutes happiness, however, is often difficult to determine. Clearly, folks who focus on their career at the expense of everything else do so out of the belief it will make them happy. Others don’t give much thought to their individual definition of happiness and, instead, do what they feel they’re supposed to do. While there is no one-size-fits-all and there are certainly different perceptions of “happiness’ among people, general wisdom, religion, and science all identify a clear winner for achieving meaning and contentment in life: love.

Happiness, in the end, is the result of biochemistry in our brains. It turns out that focusing on love, romantic and nonromantic, is associated with sensations closely linked to the perception of happiness, e.g., joy, contentment, and purpose.1 A focus on career, on the other hand, is associated with brain biochemistry less conducive of happiness but more of stress.2

Contrary to the widely held believe that evolution is all about “survival of the fittest”, more recent analyses of Darwin’s work point to his emphasis of human socialization and love as key factors for our superior adaptation and protection compared to competitors.3 Curiosity and a drive for self-preservation are also aspects associated with improved survival. A balance between these instincts is required for optimal perseverance. Accordingly, our individual brains foster this balance. Given the stronger biochemistry reward for love, however, we will do best if we move the balance as much toward love as possible while still being able to “successfully” maneuver life.

Success in life, of course, is largely defined by the dynamics of the particular society in which we live. In capitalistic, Western societies with their enormous pressure and expectation to attain status and wealth, focusing on love is more difficult to sustain. Maybe it is not surprising that depression and suicide rates in Western societies keep rising.4

The good news is that our state of mind is largely up to us—we determine our happiness. While it may be hard, practically, to free ourselves from expectations and pressure, we do have the power to identify our priorities in life. If we recognize and follow the concept of balance in our biology, we won’t go wrong.