Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome (back)!
Recently, I started a mini-series on love by scrutinizing two lines from a Beatles song that most people would probably just accept as true “It’s easy. All you need is love.” While these eight words might already be a good enough guiding principle towards a happier life, I still engaged in the fun exercise of going deeper. In the first post, I explored what we should do with all that love: Give, receive, witness, yet something else, or all of the above? I followed, where the question led me and ended up talking a lot about self-love, because this way I could reconciliate giving love (which we have more or less control over) with receiving love (which we ultimately don’t have control over). Read more about it here.
Today, in the second post of the mini-series, I want to explore the many possible objects of love. To clarify, I use “object” in the grammatical sense, namely as the person or thing that is being loved rather than the person or thing that does the loving (i.e., the subject). By this, I’m not objectifying people in any sense, they’re still complex individual agents in their own rights, but in the context of today’s post they take the roles of objects (and that’s ok). So, is it wiser (i.e., better for one’s true and lasting happiness) to love certain persons, things, or ideas, rather than others? Is it wiser to love only persons, but not things or ideas, or vice versa? Even if love is unlimited, time and resources are not – so how to choose between the countless options? In this post, I’ll manage to answer all of these questions by answering none of them.
Let’s try to structure the countless: In our first domain, persons, we could distinguish between friends, family members, romantic partners, genetic and non-genetic children, work colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, celebrities, politicians, and so on. They all can be further divided into the living and dead (e.g., should I keep loving dead relatives? Is that logically even possible?). And these are only the human persons! We can also distinguish between various non-human persons, such as pets, farm animals, wild animals, and animals in zoos. What about other living things, such as plants, corals, whole biotopes, or maybe nature itself? Should we love them like we love human beings? Next, there is the group of inanimate objects such as non-living things in nature (e.g., rocks – some people worship and arguably love them), our smartphones and others tools, or sex dolls for some. Finally, we can also think about loving abstract concepts, such as countries, regions, cities, or neighborhoods; group identifiers, such as species, race, nationality, and gender; other ideas such as democracy and human rights; or supernatural beings, such as gods, spirits, energies, and dimensions. I’m sure you could name further ones, but I’ll stop here (let me know in the comment section, which ones you find relevant!).
The answer to the question of who to love is surprisingly simple. It’s dogs, of course, because they love you no matter what. Thanks for reading, see you in two weeks! No, obviously just kidding.
One thing the above list should demonstrate is that there are too many possible objects of love to discuss in depth here. I’ll solve this problem for today by outlining a general guiding principle on how to love in order to be able to love more of the countless options (while also loving them better). It will only be in my next post that I’ll go in depth on some selected love objects.
Let me start with attempting to define the kind of love that I find most desirable (I’ll call it “true love” in the following):
True love is the highest form of affection and devotion for a person, thing, or idea. It’s characterized by benevolence, kindness, empathy, appreciation, fondness, and unconditional acceptance, not by greed, possessiveness, control, selfishness, instrumentality, and vanity.
There are probably further big words that I could throw at you, but you get the picture.
If we want to love more, we should aim to love better. I would argue that both go hand in hand, because of one central concept: Attachment. Even though I’m a psychologist, I don’t use it in the Bowlby-/Ainsworth-sense here, that is in the context of Attachment Theory, which specifies the relationships between infants, their caretakers, and strangers. I use it more in the way in which Buddhists and Stoics might use it (although in a less extreme way), as an attitude towards objects and a cause of suffering (I’m aware that a certain amount of attachment can also be a great source of happiness). In this sense, when you get too attached to an object, you become dependent on it, you crave it when you don’t have it (or didn’t have it in a while), you are afraid of losing it, you might sacrifice too much of yourself to keep it, and you might behave immorally, for example, to defend it against the efforts of others who want to take it from you. In the case of your child, for example, such an overattachment could mean that you couldn’t imagine a life without it (and some parents do lose their will to live after a child’s death), you think about it even when you could or should be doing other things, you get a little heart attack every time it runs carelessly towards a road, you’re sacrificing your health, youth, and basically life for it, and, ultimately, you might be willing to bribe it into USC. Hence, you may not only become anxious, agitated, and miserable, but also a worse person by being too attached to what you love.
Note that in this description, I’m talking about too much attachment. This implies that there is an optimal degree of attachment greater than zero, and I believe that’s the case. Hence, I don’t fully agree with the Buddhist view of the concept, in which (as I understand it) attachment should be completely avoided as a necessary step towards full enlightenment. I don’t seek full enlightenment and I wonder if complete detachment is possible for anybody who is not a monk or nun, so this position is too extreme for me. I want to be attached strongly enough to make myself vulnerable and thereby experience genuine intimacy with somebody. For me, it’s worth the risks and costs. Like the Buddhist view, an analogy in the Stoic classic Enchiridion based on the work of my man Epictetus (full text at classics.mit.edu and “audiobook” on YouTube) goes into the right direction, but is also too radical for me. There, the author describes ideal attachment (e.g., to a romantic partner or child) like picking up an onion or shellfish during a ship’s stop on land: It’s ok to do so, but one’s attention and commitment should always be with the ship that might leave at any unexpected time (in my opinion, the ship probably doesn’t have a specific meaning like death or a calling, but is used to illustrate a vigilant and non-attached way of living). Read the verbatim passage in the Appendix below.
The ideal degree of attachment might be a very personal thing, so it’s hard for me to give recommendations on its precise level. Additionally, I think that getting it perfectly right isn’t worth the effort anyway (as is usually the case with perfectionism – another win for my favorite value, moderation, yeay!). Rather we can use anxiety, agitation, craving, possessiveness, excessive sacrifice, and immoral behavior as markers for when we should dial back our attachment a bit. And the circumstance that most people probably experience some of these markers on a weekly basis shows us that most people are likely too attached to most things most of the time. Reducing one’s attachment is easier said than done, as usual, but practice makes perfect and every step in the right direction makes a difference (just as every step missed does). Again, mindfulness meditation would help with noticing the markers and with giving time to pause and change course. As I have outlined previously, the way towards true happiness is in great part a path towards becoming a self-sufficient individual, and that in turn is in great part achieved with true self-love. Things come full circle once again (and, as promised, I’ll write a post on those circles, too).
Attachment is relevant to the topic of what to love, because (less of) it can expand our choices. After all, as I said before, even if love is unlimited, time and resources are not, so we have to choose in some way or another. I would argue that the higher the attachment to any single love object gets, the more time and resources it binds and the less it leaves for other objects. In an extreme case, if you have erotomania, the pathological obsession with a loved person who doesn’t love you back (or doesn’t even know you love them), your overattachment will swallow your whole life and occupy all of your time and resources. The hand, with which you can hold love objects dear, is clenched to a fist around one single object and it squeezes the life out of you and out of them (e.g., through stalking and other excessive gestures of “love”).
Luckily, erotomania is very rare, but I think most of us hold their loved ones, be it people, objects or ideas, too tight. By opening our hands a little bit, we might not only open our hearts to a bigger portion of the world, but also give our loved ones more space to breathe and ourselves more space to relax. It’s a win-win-win situation: We win, our loved ones win, and the world wins. Because ultimately, I think that one of the biggest problems in human civilization has been that humans only managed to love the people, things, and ideas closest to them, but not the people, things, and ideas of their neighbors, enemies, and mother earth.
A lot more could be said about love and its relationship with attachment, but I’ll leave you with just one last image:
The next time you see a beautiful flower on a field, don’t pluck it, maybe don’t even take a picture of it. Just be there, let the love flow through you, and be grateful for this unique moment. Chances are you have a beautiful garden to come home to.
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PS: Today I started experimenting with some new layouting options to make essential info stick out to people only skimming the text – let me know if you find it helpful or distracting! Thanks!
Here’s the full passage from chapter 7 of the Enchiridion: “Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.”