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What Is This Thing Called Love?
Nov 1, 2010


Mustafa Tabanli

MaryLynn Schiavi

What Is This Thing Called Love?

Post: Love is a profound ability that we have to say yes to the lives of the people around us. Your life is not a mistake, your life is a gift, we affirm it, we value your life, you have significance in this universe no matter what anyone’s told you. You matter, we are concerned about you.

It is believed to conquer all. It forms the cornerstone of all major religions and has been the primary call to action echoed by the great spiritual leaders throughout human history, from Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. It has inspired countless poems, novels, songs, and films. Many people search for it their entire lives. Others find it everywhere they go. As the 1929 song written by Cole Porter asks, “What is this thing called love?” And how does love impact our physical and mental health? Can the emotion of love affect our overall well-being and the well-being of society? How can we cultivate love? We explored all these questions with Professor Stephen G. Post. Dr. Post is Professor of Preventive Medicine, Head of the Division of Medicine in Society, and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He is currently a Trustee of the John Templeton Foundation (2008-2011). Professor Post is equally recognized as a leader in the study of altruism, love, and compassion in the integrative context of scientific research, philosophy, and religious thought.

M&B: Professor Post, can we say that academic research on health mostly focuses on the negative aspects, such as depression?

Well, I think most of the research is focused on human disease and deficit and illness, but now I think there’s a little more of a balance. People realize that, say, public health, isn’t just about getting rid of lead paint or getting rid of bugs and germs by washing your hands, but it’s actually a part of how we live our lives. When we live good, generous, positive lives we are healthier, happier and odds are that we live a little longer, too.

M&B: You did a lot of research on the positive aspects, such as love and altruism. It’s a topic essential to human life, yet not essential to academic research. Do you see a controversy here?

People in the academic world are more receptive to studying positive things nowadays. I think there’s so much hatred, fear and anger in the world that people are interested in things like forgiveness, gratitude, joy, happiness, love and altruism; those are topics that have really come into their own in the last five to ten years.

M&B: How do you define love, and based on your research can we say that we are born with it?

Well, what is love? I think love is something like this: When the happiness and the security of another person means as much to me or more than my own happiness and security, I love that person. That could be a child, it could be my spouse, a parent, a friend, a colleague at work, a student, or it could even be just somebody on the street. So what we’re talking about is the shift from a preoccupation with self, you know, “I’m the center of the universe,” and only relating to people insofar as they contribute to my little agendas and plans, but no further. So, I never really discover other people as valuable in themselves, and therefore I never get a sense of awe. I think that love responds to this human need for significance.

So are we born with it? Well, we’re certainly born with the capacity for it but it can be inhibited; in other words, it can be covered over if we’re raised in an environment that’s full of hurt and hatred. I like to say hurt people… people who are hurt usually tend to be hurtful. So how we grow up, what kind of support we have in our families, in our environment, that’s important. We all have that side; I don’t think one person is different than any other in that sense. I think we all have these two sides to us, the positive and the negative, and it’s up to us in a lot of ways to decide what we emphasize, what we decide to nurture and cultivate, and it’s very easy for negative emotions to take over, and then we get in this incredible cycle of hatred and violence.

M&B: Now, there is also some research showing that being good actually has certain health benefits too. Would you please tell us a little bit about that?

Being good in the sense of being generous toward others does have health benefits. In the 1990s there was a remarkable book published called Anger Kills. It was written by a cardiologist at Duke University named Redford Williams. He looked at these personality tests that people had been taking over the last 60 or 70 years and he identified 50 questions which were associated with hostility, cynicism, anger, aggressiveness and so forth. He went back and he looked at those 50 questions. Of the people who took that test in 1950 when they were 25 years old, those who are in the top 25 percent on hostility had a 20% death rate by age 50. In other words, 20% of them were dead by the time they would have reached age 50. Of the ones who were in the lower 25% on hostility, only 2% of them were dead by age 50. So we know that these negative emotions are like acid on metal. Metal is pretty strong, but after awhile the acid will eat through even metal, so a lot of these people died of coronary problems, vascular problems, heart problems, they were more susceptible to cancer and other stress induced physical illnesses and they tended to be more depressed.

What positive emotions like love do is to move us away from that anger and hatred. Really looking toward other people, forgetting about your own problems and just being generous, getting into the flow of love, that really frees us from a lot of negative emotions. Therefore, the studies were quite remarkable. Young people going back to the 1920s who identify nobility of purpose as their major goal in life – they want to help other people – that group of young people tend to be healthier, happier and live a little longer. Even as they’re getting into their 80s and 90s, because now they’re old people, they’ve been followed up on every ten years, and they tend to get a benefit. Older adults, people 60 and older, who do a little volunteering instead of being isolated, have a tremendous reduction in death rates.

So the appeal isn’t to selfishness. I’m not saying help others just for yourself. Rather, the appeal is to look into the human essence of love. When you live that way of life, when you’re close to that way of life in your heart and in your actions, then you’re going to be shielded from a lot of alternatives – hatred, fear, anxiety, anger – you’re protected from those emotions and that’s a benefit for you. That’s why every religious tradition without a single exception, whether it’s Islam or Christianity or Buddhism or Judaism or whatever it might be, they all have statements like those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed, or it is better to give than to receive, and that idea is really important.

There’s no religious tradition that just teaches “do unto others,” you know, “love your neighbor and nothing good will happen to you.” When you love your neighbor, when you do unto others, it’s a blessing. Usually, it’s a blessing in terms of relationships and your external situation in the world because people will like you more, they will respect you more, you’ll get more opportunities and more relationships, but also it’s a health benefit. Now, this is a byproduct, it’s a side affect, you’re not aiming for it.

M&B: Now the question is how to cultivate love. In your book Why Good Things Happen to Good People you give 10 basic expressions of love. Some of them are intuitive like compassion, forgiveness, even generosity and joy. But some of them could be somewhat surprising like courage. How does courage be a part of loving?

There’s sort of ten basic expressions of love, so I’ve defined love as when the happiness and security of another person means as much or more to me as my own happiness and security. Now how can that love be expressed? Well, sometimes it’s expressed as compassion, an immediate response to suffering. I see someone suffering and I jump out of my seat and I want to help them; that’s compassion. But sometimes, love is expressed in terms of the courage to confront destructive and self-destructive behaviors. We love everybody, we believe in universal love, but there are many times in life when we’re raising children as parents, or when we’re dealing with difficult individuals who are incredibly disruptive or violent, and we certainly don’t endorse everything that people think or say. So care-frontation is what I call it, having the courage in a caring way to confront destructive behavior and in the process not to completely lose the connection with that person, you know, not to let them go away, never to be seen again, but somehow to inspire them and uplift them so that they can change and improve their behavior. That ain’t easy. People who love are not just nice all the time, but typically they are the first ones to speak out when there’s an injustice around them. All the great prophets are like that; when they see an injustice, instead of just being quiet about it, they speak to it. Sometimes at risk to themselves. So there is a certain risk that comes with the territory of courage and care-frontation. Compassion is one expression of love, but sometimes care-frontation is also an expression of love. There are a lot of other expressions of love, too.

M&B: I will leave other chapters for our readers to explore. But I see all these virtues are interconnected and intertwined, like respect is related to gratitude and celebration is related to joy and so forth.

Yes, they are. I think of it as a wheel of love. So, at the center is love as I’ve defined it, this profound ability that we have to say yes to the lives of the people around us. Your life is not a mistake, your life is a gift, we affirm it, we value your life, you have significance in this universe no matter what anyone’s told you. You matter, we are concerned about you. That’s this outpouring of love; but like in any wheel there are spokes, so the ten ways of love are like spokes on a wheel. You can sometimes see this in life on everyday occasions. I mean, my daughter called me one morning – I say this in the book, you know – and she had just gotten a new job. She was really happy about it; she’d been very sad about not having a good job. So, I was on the phone celebrating with her. I was affirming her, I was saying great, wonderful, happy, delightful, you’re terrific, but then I was coming in the door to the medical school and this poor woman who worked here for many years had just been fired, unfortunately and unfairly, and she was out in front of the door crying because her card would no longer let her get into the medical school. So she needed compassion, right? You walk through life everyday and you’ll find that you need to use all these different forms of love, maybe some on one day more than others. So they’re separate, but also they’re all interconnected, because separating them is a little bit artificial. The reality is that in most interactions you’re trying to be a good listener, you’re trying to be affirming and grateful, you’re trying to be compassionate; in other words, things can mix together a bit. Loyalty is also a very important expression of love. I mean, I’m telling you in today’s world a lot of relationships don’t last very long – marriage, parents and children, friendships – they’re not very deep, they don’t have much loyalty or much glue, and so to me commitment is a big expression of love. It’s hard to imagine loving someone if you’re just thinking, “Well, you know, I’ll see you for two seconds and bye, bye for life.” I mean, love has a kind of presence, a king of holding power that’s really important.

M&B: What would be your final recommendation?

Well, people will have different strengths, so no one shoe fits all; people have different personalities and different abilities, so some folks are going to be mostly expressing their love through, say, creativity and compassion maybe, and some people are going to be expressing love maybe more through listening. So people can have strengths and can cultivate those strengths, but they also ought to be aware of all the other different forms of love, and they ought to try to avoid big gaps. You know, big down points where they’re just not functioning.

I can’t prescribe this like a medicine. I mean, people need to be uplifted, they need the right people around them, they need to stumble on this kind of lifestyle and it’s sometimes a difficult thing. What the book does is that it gives people a kind of test, a quiz at the end of every chapter, so they can size themselves up. They can get a birds’ eye view of some other strengths and maybe some of the areas where they could work a little bit harder, just by having that in mind. Everything begins with an idea. So just putting that idea, planting that idea in a person’s mind – “Hey, I could be more loyal, I could be more forgiving” – that’s the beginning of change.

Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond.