Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome (back)!
A few weeks ago, I started a mini-series on love, because it’s one of the most fundamental keys, if not the most fundamental key to a happy life. In the last post, I started discussing who and what to love, and I outlined a general principle to increase one’s capacity for (true1) love. Today I will focus on some specific love objects2, namely romantic partners, friends and family, as well as ideas. I chose these three from the countless love objects that could be discussed, because the first two (I count “friends and family” as one) are among the most central in our lives and the last one is relatively rarely discussed in the context of love, even though it has a massive impact on our lives. If you haven’t read the first post in the series and you wonder why I don’t discuss the arguably most important object of love, one’s self: Congratulations, you’re a rare breed by granting self-love such importance! I agree and elaborate in said post why self-love is a great place to start to improve one’s life.
Ok, let’s get some general notions out of the way. In my last post, I raised a couple of questions and answered them without answering them. This time I’ll actually address them. First, “is it wiser (i.e., better for one’s true and lasting happiness) to love certain persons, things, or ideas, rather than others?” Ultimately, that is, when you have developed infinite true love (see definition in footnote 1), then no, it does not matter anymore what you love. This is, because you love every person, thing, and idea, but you’re not overly attached to any of them. Yet, I’m not sure that this end state even exists, so this might be just some theoretical mind exercise anyway.
What’s arguably more important is your everyday life and what you can realistically hope for in this one life you have. And there, it makes a huge difference what you love, because you tend to form attachments to and relationships with your love objects. That means, for example, that you don’t only love somebody, but you try to be with them and get them to show love towards you. Here, I would argue, it’s always better to be in “healthy” relationships, that is, relationships without emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. If any of your relationships has any of those, get out as fast as you can. This is one of the examples in which you should definitely change your circumstances rather than yourself.
Other than that, I would just say that you should love (and relate to) the best objects you can find and afford, but stop searching when you have found the ones, which are good enough. You should have a high (but still realistic) bar for what’s good enough, so it’d be very lucky anyway to find the ones that match where it matters. If you don’t stop at good enough, however, you’ll never be happy (I’ll elaborate on this in a dedicated post; if you’re curious now, read Epicurus or get started with this entertaining, yet imperfect portrait).
Another question I asked was “Is it wiser to love only persons, but not things or ideas, or vice versa?” Again, I’ll elaborate only in the context of everyday relationships, not on the mind exercise level. Overall, I don’t feel too strongly about this question. Who knows if eventually one’s happier devoting one’s life and love to persons, things, ideas, or a certain mix of them? I’m sure there are personality differences at play (more on that in the paragraph on subconscious needs below), and some people might be happier forming deep friendships, while others might be more fulfilled studying the cosmos or write fan fiction. Generally, though, I would expect that people get most out of people and tangible objects, as we might have evolved to work that way. The reward systems in our brains had way more time to be calibrated towards members of our species and the beauty of nature, than to string theory, nation states, and Game of Thrones. I should add though that pleasure, as generated in the reward systems of our brains, is something different from true and lasting happiness (and Buddhist theories would even argue that one has to overcome the former to attain the latter). Finally, as a fan of moderation, I’d personally advise for a healthy mix with a certain emphasis on people and tangible things3.
With these general notions out of the way, let’s talk about romantic relationships. Remember, they’re like picking up onions and shellfish during a ship’s stay on land. All kidding aside, should you have them, and if yes, how many, and what should you bear in mind? I think you should have them, as they can enrich your life immensely (but they’re also not for everybody so don’t feel pressured). Romantic relationships tend to be the most intimate relations in our lives, and, despite what cynics say, romantically committed people have more sex than singles. Be warned though, they’ll usually also be the greatest source of suffering in your life. But that’s just the price to pay when pitting two or more primates “against” each other.
That’s why I think that it is of paramount importance that one gets as far away from the problematic parts of one’s primate roots before entering a relationship. Of course, becoming a self-sufficient, happy person is a life-long project for all but very few, so one will have to enter one prematurely. Luckily, romantic relationships usually challenge you to grow and face your demons, so ideally you get to your best selves together. But this can only happen if both have more or less the same goal and none went into the relationship trying to fill a hole. Regarding the number of romantic relationships that one should have at the same time, for now I’ll just say that one may have as many as one likes, as one has time and resources for, and, most importantly of all, as is ethically possible with all parties involved.
Another reason to engage in romantic relationships is that you can achieve bigger things together. One person alone can barely build a house and not even dream of inventing space flight or dance a tango. Whatever your projects are, another helping, loving hand can do wonders for you. And you for them (helping, by the way, another great source of happiness, better even than being helped). If you want children, relationships are great, too. As the African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child, and every romantic partner that wants to have or raise a child with you brings you closer to having that village at your disposal. Needless to say, friends, family, or others can and should be part of that village, too.
Let’s turn to friends and family. You can’t really choose to have a family; you’re born into one. You also can’t choose your family; you can just choose to take it or leave it. And leaving it is a valid option, especially if there are abusive elements involved (which unfortunately isn’t all that uncommon). I don’t know who said it, but a family is basically a group of people of different generations and walks of life who would never hang out under normal circumstances (if you know the author, please share in the comments). Therefore, if you have a happy family, you’re enjoying a great luxury; if your family is just fine, like many families are, you might invest some, but not too much energy in shaping it for the better; if your family is proper fucked up, like equally many families are, look for your luck elsewhere. Where? Friends!
Friends are basically the non-biological, non-legal family that you have chosen and that has chosen you. Chosen to match regarding values, personalities, age, humor, interests, location, and so on. Pretty sweet deal, imho. There is one problem, though: As friendship traditionally hasn’t had the essential role in most societies that the biological and legal family has, most people don’t consider the option of investing into this potentially superior form of family (even in the so-called individualistic countries of the so-called Western world). Chances are that neither your friends consider it, so they’d usually rather build lives that are centered around getting along with their existing families and starting their own. Most commonly, after the first baby has arrived, the priorities shift dramatically from everything else to the baby (that’s another reason why one should share the burden with that proverbial village). Like with a romantic partner, you have to talk with your friends about how you envision an ideal life and which role they could play in that vision.
How many friends or close family members you need and how deep you want to go with them depends, among other factors, on what we psychologists call “implicit motives.” These are subconscious needs that are theorized to have developed so early in one’s life that one couldn’t talk about them, even if one wanted to. Even though it contradicts the research, however, my impression is that highly self-reflective people know more or less how strong these needs are within them. There’s one need to “go wide”, that is, to have many acquaintances, to party, to have a good banter, even if it doesn’t go very deep. And there is one need to “go deep”, that is, to have personal conversations, connections, and intimacy, even if only with a few people. Even though both are positively correlated, which means that the average person tends to have somewhat similar scores on both needs (i.e., high-high, low-low, or anything in between), these two needs can have all kinds of combinations in individuals (e.g., high-low, low-mid, etc.). Socrates was right when he said that you should “Know Thyself,” so, in this case, know your needs to go wide and deep, because psychological research has very consistently found that living a life that doesn’t match your subconscious needs will make you miserable.
Lastly, let’s look at loving ideas. As noted above, one probably can live a happy life devoting oneself mostly to different forms of ideas, such as values, theories, and stories, rather than more tangible things like people, animals, and other parts of nature. This, however, is likely true only for very few people as most of us are probably hardwired differently by evolution. Even if we are not among those few, we all have our favorite ideas, whether we realize it or not. Thus, how can we best shape our relationships with them?
I want to start by saying that it’s ok to love one’s ideas (to a certain degree). Values, for example, guide our lives and tell us what things to pursue and how to pursue them. They’re especially useful when we encounter a new or surprising situation, because they tell us what to aim for. This way, we can come up with an action that we can stand behind, even when unprepared. If a film crew on the street, for example, stunned us with the question “Isn’t it enough already with all the refugees pouring in?”, we ideally might remember that we value empathy and kindness and therefore answer “No. Everyone who needs help should receive help.” This example probably illustrates that in order to act in accordance with our values, we must have internalized them to the point of automaticity or be mindful enough to call on them instead of going with the usually more automatic response of agreeing with any suggestively worded question. It probably also illustrates the importance of having the “right” values, but that’s a topic for another day.
Can you love your values too much? If you don’t love them truly (as defined in footnote 1), then yes, definitely! If, for example, you “love” them excessively (e.g., with too much attachment), you might be carried away to act violently against people who have violated your values. Further, you could become blind to what the situation affords and just act according to one of your values. This can be harmful, even with arguably the best of values. Take the sanctity of life, for example. How many people have died through The Joker’s hands, just because Batman would under no circumstances violate his value of non-killing, even though he new exactly that no prison could hold The Joker for long? One could make the case that Batman therefore has blood on his hands (other than the blood from regularly beating up criminals to a bloody pulp).
I believe that the example of values can be applied to all other ideas and fictions, whether they are logical, ethical, scientific, theological, story-based, etc. The worst of them include narratives of necessary bloody revolutions, stories of racial superiority, or arguments of why a specific war is justified.
Almost everybody loves their ideas too much, including me, and we should try to stay open to being corrected.
You know by now that my two favorite values are skepticism and moderation. This is because they were, so far, the only ones who withheld all my scrutiny (but was I scrutinizing enough?). Additionally, they keep all my other values and ideas in check (if I’m mindful enough to remember them), because I try to be sceptic towards them and only hold them in moderation. But maybe I should be more sceptic with moderation and more moderate with skepticism, who knows? It’s not hard to find examples where embracing them too fully leads to negative consequences, too. Excessive skepticism, on the one hand, could lead to paranoia, because one doubts everything, or an inability to act, because one never stops questioning one’s possible actions. Excessive moderation can lead one to miss out on the extreme pleasures of life, like being head over heels in love or make love until it hurts.
As usual, happiness lies in the balance, even the balance of balance (and the balance of balance of balance).
There are many other things that could be said about loving one’s ideas, like how they should be as muchly as possible grounded in “reality” in order to stop oneself from succumbing to a mind-numbing placebo idea, but this post is already long enough as it is. Therefore, let’s recapitulate! In this third post in the mini-series on love I discussed some general notions on who and what to love, before I delved more deeply into three concrete love objects: Romantic partners, friends and family, and ideas.
In the general notions, I wrote that you should get out of abusive relationships as fast as you can, but stop searching for the ideal love objects once you were lucky enough to find the ones that match your high but realistic standards. I further wrote that is unclear to me whether one would be happier devoting one’s life and love to persons, things, ideas, or a certain mix of them, but concluded that a healthy mix with a certain emphasis on people and tangible things should do it best for most people.
Regarding romantic relationships, I argued that one should try to get as far as possible in becoming a self-sufficient, happy person before entering a relationship (with somebody who has hopefully done the same – fair warning, though: The air gets thinner the more one moves up). I also wrote that one should have as many simultaneous romantic relationships as one likes, as one has time and resources for, and as is ethically possible, but no more than that. The reasons I named for why one should get into any romantic relationships at all were that one is usually stimulated to grow and that one can achieve bigger things together.
On friends and family, I wrote that for most people friends can be the better family, because one is not just dropped at each other, but one can choose each other actively. Yet, it takes some work and communication to build the structures and collective lives that already are societally prepared for biological and legal families. Then, I dropped some psychological knowledge on why it makes sense to Know Thyself and organize your life to match your subconscious needs to go wide with and deep into your relationships.
Lastly, I put forward that one should basically apply skepticism and moderation to one’s values and other ideas, including skepticism and moderation themselves. I argued that even if one has good values, there’s still such a thing as too much of a good thing. One should therefore strive to love one’s ideas, like everything else, truly and without excessive attachment. Also, Batman might have blood on his hands.
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1 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.
2 As I clarified in my last post, 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 – they just take the roles of objects in this post.
3 I should probably clarify that with “things” I don’t mean a big crib, Lamborghini, and diamonds in the champagne glass. I mean, one can probably live a fulfilled life devoting oneself to the art of pottery or something.