As I try to understand what makes people happier and how to put that into practice for myself, I’ve learned from books on neuroscience and cognitive behavioral therapy, on Buddhism and Stoicism, and on changing habits and mindsets. One book had a chapter on love that seems particularly important.
“Passionate love is the kind you fall into,” writes Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful and useful book, The Happiness Hypothesis.
“Passionate love is a drug. Its symptoms overlap with those of heroin and cocaine. It’s no wonder: Passionate love alters the activity of several parts of the brain, including parts that are involved in the release of dopamine…if passionate love is a drug - literally a drug - it has to wear off eventually.”
He asserts that, physically, the brain adapts to such drugs and so the powerful feelings must, naturally, fade. “Nobody can stay high forever.”
The other kind of love is compassionate love and it, too, is based on biological systems that have evolved over many millennia.
“Compassionate love grows slowly over the years as lovers apply their attachment and caregiving systems to each other, and as they begin to rely upon, care for, and trust each other.
If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, the metaphor for compassionate love is vines growing, intertwining, and gradually binding two people together.”
Which one is the true love?
Haidt highlights how, because people are unaware of the different kinds of love, there’s a risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. These are the danger points in the graph below. We commit too soon, perhaps, feeling we’ve found true love and want to keep that feeling forever. Or when the fire is no longer blazing, we fear that love wasn’t true love in the first place, and we leave to seek another.
From looking at this graph, compassionate love looks woefully unrewarding. Perhaps, to paraphrase an old expression, it’s better to have passionately loved and lost than never to passionately loved at all.
But knowing that the two loves are distinct, and that they have natural biological underpinnings based on our humanness, can help us gain perspective and make better choices.
“Passionate love does not turn into compassionate love. Passionate love and compassionate love are two separate processes, and they have different time courses.”
Looking at love over the course of a life instead of over the course of six months or a year can provide that different perspective. That graph looks very different.
Haidt doesn’t reject passionate love. It’s just not enough for long enough. When it comes to love, long-term happiness comes from compassionate love. If you can occasionally feel passionate about that person as well, that’s all the better.
“True love exists, I believe, but it is not - cannot be - passion that lasts forever. True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong compassionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.”