By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar
Think for a moment about how you would define the concept of “love” in your own words. Sit tight. We will come back to this.
Do you ever read a book that you just can’t put down? That’s how I felt when reading Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind by Annaka Harris. The book explores the idea of consciousness. This concept is used across disciplines such as medical, legal, technological, and psychological, just to name a few. Each field has a different way of explaining consciousness, and there is no single agreed upon definition that encapsulates its meaning.
While reading the book, I was struck by how the author guides us on a long and circuitous expedition to explore consciousness, engaging the reader every step of the way and resisting the urge to present us with a single bright and shiny answer. Instead, the author emphasizes the value of contemplating this complex question for ourselves.
Pondering the notion of consciousness made me think about other concepts that we don’t completely understand. Take love, for example. We talk about love, refer to it, and base so much on it, yet its meaning is mysterious and elusive.
At Graddha, we work with individuals, couples and families to develop the fundamental building blocks for successful, thriving multi-generational relationships. We sit down with our clients, and find out what they desire most in their lives. They almost always mention love as being most important. But what does this mean? What exactly is love?
If you read no further, here’s our view on the topic: Everyone has their own understanding of love. And we all have access to it. But in any relationship, it can be problematic when we are operating under the assumption that love means the same thing to everyone. What if we took the time to consider what love means to us individually and shared it explicitly with the important people in our lives? Perhaps the process of exploring love and the communication surrounding it is more valuable than reaching a universal understanding of its meaning.
Let’s explore this, shall we?
Many cultures and disciplines have explored this topic for centuries, and we still don’t have a common understanding of love. Is it a chemical reaction? A function of the mind? Something that is simply intuitive — you know it when you feel it? The truth is, it depends on who you ask. Each field has its own point of view, from linguistics to neuroscience to psychology. The Oxford dictionary defines it as both a noun, “an intense feeling of deep affection” and a verb, “to feel deep affection for (someone).” The Ancient Greek philosophers believed there are three types of love, eros, the kind of passionate love reserved for our romantic partners, agape, a “brotherly love” that we hold for all people, and philia, the “affectionate regard” we feel for friends or family. This introduced an early idea that love is experienced differently depending on the nature of the relationship.
We also have spiritual and religious definitions of love. Notions like “love thy neighbor” have shaped our collective consciousness and the way we teach our children to treat people. Classic Buddhist teachers believe there are four types of love, accounting for kindness, compassion, joy and freedom in its definition.
In the Modern and Postmodern Periods, we also learned about psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, who highlighted the role of drive, pleasure, and the love between a mother and child. The field of psychology later contributed research supporting the role of attachment and trust in both parental and romantic love.
There is scientific evidence that suggests that love is a chemical and physical experience. In an early study led by psychologist Art Aron, neurologist Lucy Brown, and anthropologist Helen Fisher, individuals were studied while hooked up to an fMRI machine. The participants were shown an image of their romantic partner, and also a friend. The study revealed that when staring at the romantic partner, the brain lit up like a sparkler. (Is this why we say sparks are flying?) This research concluded that there is a specialized part of the brain involved in the experience of love, and related to a release of dopamine that contributes to a feeling of reward.
We’ve only scratched the surface here. There are as many definitions as there are people and schools of thought.
The Talking, the Feeling and the Doing
Love is contextual. There is romantic love, parental love, friendship, and more. The type of relationship and context inform us on how to behave. Not to mention, we each have our own influences, experiences and philosophies that impact how we think, feel and express love. And this can cause relational confusion. It makes sense that our expectations and ideas of love will vary depending on the person and the situation. But sometimes we forget that each relationship is unique and must be co-created in the present. When we are relying on lessons learned from previous experiences, we miss the opportunity to develop true intimacy.
Gary Chapman, renowned couples therapist, coined the idea of “love languages” based on his own anecdotal experience of 30+ years in the field. He believed that just like any language, there are dialectics. Love languages are “five ways that people speak and understand emotional love” involving actions like gift giving or expressing “words of affirmation.” Love languages are an attempt to codify communication around the meaning of love. They emphasize how love is performed differently, depending on the relationship, context or strengths and preferences of the individuals. How we give and express love to others is also informed by our own meaning and feelings about it.
Are We Any Closer to Defining Love?
Return to your initial definition of love. How does it hold up now? Has it shifted or changed? If you’re more confused than when we started this discussion, you’re exactly in the right place. In his TED-X video, educator Brad Troeger explains that love is a construct based on our brain chemistry, experiences, feelings and cultural expectations, and this question can be viewed through many lenses. He says, “love is always up for discussion, and under construction.”
Chewing on this topic reminds us of the murkiness and uncertainty of the human condition. These profound, intangible questions are as ever-changing and evolving as we are. However, a question so complex is worth wrestling with, even if we never come to a firm conclusion. To take a page out of Annaka Harris’ book, what is most important is not the answer but the process of contemplating it.
Love is accessible to all of us by choice. Our definitions may be different, but when expressed with respect for the dignity of all involved, love catalyzes positive relationships. First we have to find love for ourselves. From there, we have the capacity to give it out. The more we share love, the more courage others have to do the same. Love is infectious. At the risk of sounding cliche, imagine the potential we have to nurture and heal ourselves, each other and our communities the more we actively cultivate love. In our view, this gives us hope that even the most intractable conflicts can be resolved.
We invite you to sit down with someone who is important to you and together, explore each of your understandings of love. The following questions and ideas can be used to guide you:
Start by talking.
- What does love mean to you?
- How can I show you that I love you?
- What do I do that makes you feel loved?
- How do you know you are loved?
- What can we do to deepen the love in our relationship?
Remember the feeling.
- How did you feel after answering the questions above? Discuss what it was like to share your answers and receive theirs.
- Think about a time when you felt love and acceptance for yourself. How did that come about? Have you ever shared that experience with anyone? If you are comfortable, tell your loved one about it.
- When was the last time you felt very loved by someone else? What happened? Explain this to your loved one.
And about the doing…
Being able to experience feelings of love is by itself beneficial. This counts for “doing” love! And in relationships, “doing love” might look different. Discuss with your loved one:
- How do you give love?
- How do you like to receive it most?
- What is one thing you can do to show each other love this week?
We are always inspired by you! Feel free to comment below and let us know how this experience was for you.
- Brad Troeger: What is love? | TED Talk. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://www.ted.com/talks/brad_troeger_what_is_love.
- Harris , A. (2020). Conscious: A brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind. HarperPerennial.
- Helm, B. (2021, September 1). Love. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved. October 16, 2022, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/love/
- Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://iep.utm.edu/love-his/#H3
- Love according to buddhism: Everything you need to know. Learn, live and experience East Asian Cultures. (2021, February 17). Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://east-asian-cultures.com/love-according-buddhism/
- This is your brain on heartbreak. Greater Good. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/this_is_your_brain_on_heartbreak