Happiness & The Two Kinds of Love

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.

Perrault Leon Jean Basile Cupids Arrows

Passionate love

“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.”

Compassionate love

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.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, p. 127

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.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, p. 128

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.”

A particularly memorable “I love you”

Making memoriesWhen I’m driving by myself, I’ll catch up on TED talks or listen to public radio, and that opens a door to new ideas and new worlds. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch The Moth, a program where people share their true stories live. This Wednesday, I heard Wendy Suzuki’s story. She’s a neuroscientist whose father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she talked about that. She also described her family and trying to change how they related to each other.

“My brother and I always knew that our parents loved us despite the fact that we never said those three words to each other: I love you.

I wanted to start saying these words I love you to my parents.”

How do you start?

Though she barely spoke to her parents as a student, Wendy grew closer to them as she got older, calling every week. Usually it was small talk, talking about the things she did and asking them how they were doing. One week, though, she decided to ask a very different kind of question.

“Hey mom, we never say I love you. What do you think about the idea of starting to say that when we talk to each other?”

She realized how ridiculous this seemed. Here she was, a grown woman and highly trained professor at NYU, asking her mother for permission to tell her she loved her. Still, she was worried she would say no.

Her mother paused. Wendy grew increasingly anxious while she waited for an answer.

“I think that’s a great idea,” her mother said.

Wendy breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was just one more hurdle to go. After all, it was one thing to agree to express what you felt and another thing to actually say it. As the call wound down, the moment was approaching and the tension rose. Wendy knew she had to make the first move.

“Okaaaay. I love you.”

“I love you too,” her mother said.

Those three simple words were overwhelming. “After that call, I broke down in tears.”

The power of a feeling

On that same phone call, her father also agreed. But his memory was failing, and he would often get confused. While the I love you’s with her mother came easier over time, Wendy was unsure if her father would even remember what they spoke about.

“That week, though, he said 'I love you' first. And he said 'I love you' first every single week after that."

Wendy the neuroscientist knew what happened.

“Emotional resonance is helpful for memories. The beautiful emotion of his daughter asking him whether she could say I love you to him. It beat dementia and allowed him to form a new memory.

And you can be sure I will keep that memory for the rest of my life.”

The power of three little words. The power of love. Go. Make a memory.