We know love is good for us. Research suggests that people involved in loving relationships generally live longer and are happier than those who are socially isolated. In a recent study, cholesterol and blood pressure values decline in response to positive developments in relationships over time (1). That does not mean we need to be in a committed romantic relationship to enjoy the benefits of love. It is the love we experience—independent of the relationship context—that fuels our happiness. We may be married but miserable and at greater risk of health problems than someone who is single and has loving relationships.
Source: Copy right by Armin Zadeh
But why do we struggle finding love or maintaining loving relationships? The answer can be summarized in two words: competing interests. Our mind is almost constantly confronted with impulses for thoughts or activities. Most of these impulses are related to maintaining our physical and mental wellbeing. Supporting our bodily functions is straightforward and intuitive. A simple example is that we often find ourselves irritated and less amiable to our environment when we are hungry. Fortunately, there is an easy fix for this kind of distraction. Much more difficult to resolve is when our perception of self-worth needs balancing—because the underlying processes might not be apparent to us.
Few have developed a self-esteem so strong that it does not require affirmation from others. To many of us, external validation of our self-worth is very important. The feedback we get from our environment may affirm—but may also hurt—our perception of our self-esteem. It is intuitive that the more fragile our own perception of self-worth is, the more we crave external validation (and vice versa). If I have a bruised or poorly developed self-esteem, my mind will spend a lot of energy seeking support for my self-worth elsewhere. Mostly subconsciously, my mind will constantly scan my environment for clues to improve my sense of self-worth and, at the same time, be very sensitive to signs which may confirm my poor perception of myself. Not only will this mind activity make it more difficult to devote affection to others, it also will hinder my own enjoyment of social interactions.
On a larger scale, goals linked to my desired position in society also strongly influence my mind’s activities. For example, if I consciously or subconsciously believe my worth as a person is closely linked to me holding a prominent status, e.g., distinguished by material wealth or power, much of my mind’s energy is devoted to this goal—for a long time if not for all my life. When there are competing interests, e.g., spending time with loved ones, it comes down to what my priorities are.
The greater my need for external affirmation and validation is, the more my mind will be preoccupied with it, and the harder it is for me to dedicate effort and time to love and the harder it is to have deep, meaningful relationships. Of course, this is not to mean that anybody successful in her or his career or otherwise ambitious will fail with love. What it does mean is that our mind’s focus and energy are limited —and loving relationships require a lot of attention. We have the ability to direct the focus of our mind. We need to devote effort to our job or other responsibilities—and at times, these will require most of our attention. Depending how important relationships are to us, however, we cannot leave them completely out of focus. In the end, love comes down to a choice –which we make over and over, every single day.
If I have very little need to externally affirm my perception of self-worth, my mind is freer to concentrate on love which in turn fuels my own happiness. Understanding that my worth as a person does not come from external affirmation but from my existence as a unique individual—with strengths and weaknesses—allows me to fully experience love and life. It is not co-incidental that those who exemplify love, such as the Buddha or Jesus, were remarkably humble individuals. Love and humility go hand in hand.
Plato, Fromm, and others claimed that only the rare individual, who overcomes the stages of narcissism and gains deep insights into human nature is capable of loving in the true, ideal sense (2). While most of us may not reach the master level in the art of love, striving for this goal will enhance our ability to love and help us to become better people.