I love my family. Not “love” as in how I love smoothies and pumpkin pie (I do), or “love” like when I was smitten with a girlfriend at 13 years old. I’m talking think-about-them-endlessly, touch-base-every-day, take-a-bullet-for, construct-your-life-around, their-happiness-is-your-happiness, kind of love.
Thinking in this way inspires me to be a better person; to inspire them, and to be better equipped to provide and care for them. It inspires me to work hard, sometimes doing work that sucks, because the idea of them being happier motivates me like none else.
Perhaps this is the point?
What if the overarching point of our existence was to bring love into the world, and love one another? What if love was both the reason for our labors, as well as the fruit?
What if love is the path to becoming our best selves, the source of meaning we crave in our existence, the north star that guides our path?
Let’s build upon this idea of love being the central point of living.
Love as a Means of Survival
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
— His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Think back to a time where you were pushed to the very edge of your abilities. Where there was genuine uncertainty of whether you would succeed or fail. In an academic situation, the stakes are not as dire; perhaps you may gain acceptance to a school, receive a scholarship, or be cited in a peers’ paper. But if you were to be rock climbing freely, leaping for a handhold without a ledge to fall back on… the stakes are far more severe.
In the academics example, we often study in groups, and never do we enroll in programs where we are the only student participant; there is always a peer group to understand our struggles, and to fall back on for support. This is not the case when rock climbing; should you take a tumble, there’s nothing between you and the ground you sought to ascend from.
I use this example to demonstrate the effects of working towards causes where you have a safety net of compassion and love, or at the least, of empathy from a shared experience. There is a reason that we refer to the cliche of how hard it is to “go it alone”. In many endeavors, acting as an individual increases your risk of failure tremendously. And while some endeavors are more individualistic than others, like rock climbing compared to academic studying, it is always beneficial to have the support and encouragement of others as you strive for progress. The risks of going it alone are often formidable.
Love, the genuine desire for the well-being of others, is an antidote to these risks.
By loving and caring for others, we take efforts to ensure their survival. In the early years, we would collaborate to build shelters for one another, we would carry clean water great distances, and we would share in the fruits of our hunting and foraging. We knew that having one designated hunter in the group left others free to build our shelters, care for the young, etc. Individuals focused on their specialized tasks, but all operated with the goal of uniquely contributing to the group at large. Everyone relied on everyone else to cohesively meet the needs of the collective.
There is a reason that W.H. Auden wrote “Love each other or perish”.
We cannot, and should not, live life on our own.
Living on our own means isolation. Given that humans are inherently tribal beings, isolation degrades our mental health. In today’s world, it has become a cliche to notice how “technology continues to connect us, yet we increasingly feel farther apart”. I cannot help but think that this sense of disconnectedness is a primary driver of unhappiness. In spite of tremendous infrastructural advancement, there are still staggering rates of mental health afflictions, and even suicides. In turn, many teenagers feel lost in our shared world, and many middle-aged individuals come to feel trapped and hopeless. The suicide rate in the U.S. increased 19% from 2007 to 2016, with 7 out of 10 suicides being white males. Isn’t the white male supposed to represent privilege and power in the modern era? The answer is that isolation, a lack of love and connectedness, impacts us all.
Is it not fair to say that if these individuals who feel uncared for and isolated … if they were to feel as though they were deeply valued, and part of a group that relied on them, perhaps they would be less prone to taking their own lives?
Caring for something external to ourselves such as a family member or a purposeful cause provides a sense of purpose that many may lack. And at the crux of this idea is that of love. To love something bigger than ourselves, we accept that we cannot “go it alone”, that we are reliant on others. This is a beautiful idea because two individuals who may not deeply love themselves, but express love for each other… they create a reason to live. To better themselves. To wake up in the morning and share the gifts of life. They create a symbiotic relationship where each focuses on the other’s happiness, and both are happier as a result.
“The quickest way, the surest way, of experiencing more happiness in our lives, is to focus more on the happiness of others”
— Andy Puddicombe, Headspace
Whether it is building a shelter to share with someone while the rain comes pouring down, laboring daily on a sports field to become better athletes and teammates for the shared goal of a championship trophy, or tending to the needs of your romantic partner as you both work towards raising children, we’re better when we work in a partnership or a team. We shouldn’t go it alone. When we express love, unconditional love, we increase our rates of survival, and of success.
Love each other or perish.
Love as Chemical Reactions that Unite Us
When speaking of survival, one must also notice how our biology has incentivized us to care and love for each other.
The excretion of pleasure chemicals such as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine make us feel incredibly happy, and many of these chemicals are released upon feeling the warmth of a loving hug (dopamine), bringing a child into the world (oxytocin), or even of giving a gift to someone else (mesolimbic reward system).
We are rewarded for acts, both physical and emotional, that extend beyond ourselves. Oxytocin relieves much of the pain of child-birth, an act that ensures the continuation of our species. Dopamine-filled hugs ensure that we remain proximal and physically-engaged with each other, providing a brief moment of shelter and security for those we embrace. Pheromones guide us towards sexual partners that provide diversity in immune systems and blood types, improving our chances at successful offspring. Even generosity is rewarded, for the giver as well as the recipient, incentivizing us to share the fruits of our labors and provide for those other than ourselves.
How Stuff Works has compiled a fantastic 10-part series on love, chemicals included, so I will not belabor the minutiae of the bodily processes. Instead, I want to emphasize that our evolution has brought us to the point where we have entire bodily systems rewarding us for the expression of love, in all of its forms. With serotonin being a cure for depression, and dopamine existing in loving day-to-day interactions, it is clear that we have developed reward systems that compel us to construct communities to contribute to, and engage with others on a near daily basis. We are rewarded for loving.
If loving each other was not advantageous for our survival and prosperity, we would not have entire reward systems dedicated to rewarding us for unselfish acts. Caring for one another is at least part of “the point”, if not the entire point. I feel that love is embedded into our skin and bones. Evolution has explicitly told us that we were meant to live in groups and care for each other — our communities are only as strong as our weakest links, and it is love that strengthens the individual and the bonds that unite us.
We have evolved to love.
Love as a Path to Happiness & Fulfillment
One of our timeless models of human development is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Liking Maslow’s hierarchy to the process of building a house, it makes intuitive sense to lay the foundation of the necessities (food, shelter, water) in order to set the stage for future endeavors (raising a family, living out our highest purpose). These higher-order values are the top of Maslow’s pyramid, and would be the roof of our metaphorical house. That said, it is impossible to have a top floor without both a first floor and a middle floor, and in Maslow’s hierarchy, love is our middle floor. Without love, the individual cannot progress to the stages of Esteem and Self-Actualization. As a result, love proves itself foundational for us to develop into the best versions of ourselves.
Love’s impact on esteem and self-actualization is crucial to understanding the way we must view our lives in order to develop into our best selves, our most complete selves. As we will come to see later, the goals that drive us throughout our lives all come back to love, yet it is often only on death’s doorstep that we gain the clarity required to recognize love’s ubiquitous role. In an interview only weeks before his death, the late Professor Morris “Morrie” Schwartz (of Tuesdays with Morrie fame), asks his interviewer and friend Mitch Albom:
“Have you found someone to share your heart with? Are you giving to your community? Are you at peace with yourself?
Are you trying to be as human as you can be?”
And with this quote, “Morrie” beautifully encapsulates love’s impact on happiness and fulfillment, and the self-actualization that awaits at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Sharing our love, growing instrumental to our community, and living at peace with ourselves is both an act of love towards ourselves, as it is the world external to us.
Taken further, many of Morrie’s questions are supported by research: marriage has been found to have a “positive and enduring effect on well-being”; individuals who have a strong connection to their community are happier; being generous with our time has been found to be one of the top three predictors of a successful marriage and “appear[s] capable of sustaining happiness at a higher average level than other goals”; and regret can have “damaging effects on mind and body”.
Seems like our Sociology Professor, Morrie, was onto something.
The idea of aligning ourselves with people and missions we care about, and improving ourselves so we may better serve these causes, is both selfless and rewarding. It comes as no surprise that a purposeful life and strong communal ties are central tenets of Blue Zone localities (regions with the highest life expectancy), as individuals have purposes that extend beyond themselves and reasons to improve that serve more than their own personal gain. Their daily labors are done with love, as they are often providing for more than themselves, and there is a direct link between the work they perform and the benefits derived by their community (like a fisherman sharing his catch, or a gardener sharing her produce).
Personally, I often strive to “better” myself (exercising, meditating, earning an income, eating a clean diet) so that I will have more time with my loved ones, and be able to provide even more for them. I am striving to improve myself, so that I have more time for what is most important (a simultaneously selfish and unselfish goal). I believe many can attest to this mindset.
Is this desire to improve, so we may better serve others, not love at it’s core? Do busy parents not pursue greater work-life balance to have more time to nurture their children? Don’t many of us strive for greater incomes so that we can take care of our family’s medical bills, tuition costs, etc? And is it not love that drives charity, such as Buffet & the Gates’ The Giving Pledge, as well as the popularity of the Effective Altruism movement?
In the case of The Giving Pledge, it is paradigm-shifting to think that those individuals whom society places on a pedestal, those who have accumulated immense amounts of wealth (Buffet, Musk, Benioff, Gates), are pledging to donate over half of their wealth to charities intent on addressing society’s most pressing problems. These individuals “won the game” in the eyes of many, having income that far surpassed their needs. And even these individuals recognize that money cannot be taken with us after our lifetime has ended. Instead, these super-wealthy are acting with the purest of intention, an act of loving charity, to deploy their capital for the betterment of the world at large. Financial resources and loving intention is a powerful combination.
Finally, the idea of love transcends even the physical world. Love is a central tenet of all major religions, and forms the basis for the Golden Rule. There are examples abound:
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”
— Matthew 22:39
“Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess.”
— Qur’an 4:36
“the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself”
— Leviticus 19:34
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
— Confucius’ Analects 15:23
When this idea is combined with Mahatma Ghandi’s thought on how “The essence of all religions is one. Only their approaches are different” it becomes apparent that nearly all prominent religions focus on loving others as we do ourselves.
Whether by evolution, divine placement, or otherwise, human beings are intended to care for each other and love one another.
The central purpose of living is to love.
Maslow’s hierarchy shows that experiencing and expressing love is a stepping stone towards becoming our greatest selves. Morrie Schwartz’s idea of “trying to be as human as you can be” ultimately boils down to caring and loving others, backed by research. The longest-living individuals construct their lives out of community and working to improve the lives of those around them. Society’s paragon’s of success are pledging to give back immensely to the communities and world that raised them. And the religions we hold dearest to our hearts and souls all have love entrenched into their scripture, urging us to care for one another as we would ourselves.
So for the love of it all, recognize why you are living today. Spread and embody love, and the world will be better for it.
Love each other or perish. Love thy neighbor.
Live as though you were born to love.
Originally published at kyletymo.com.