George E. Vaillant, M.D. has studied adult development, including the lives of 800+ men and women for over 60 years as a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His past books highlight many of his results in this field. His current book, Spiritual Evolution (2008), demonstrates the necessity of positive emotions for human development and survival.His other articles are here.
First, what is “real love”?
To understand love, those usually helpful resources—the ancient Greeks, the poets, the psychologists, even Cupid—all fail us. Too readily, these experts become preoccupied with lust and forget about lasting attachment. And the Buddha, too, lets us down; for he was too preoccupied with compassion to appreciate lasting attachment. True, love is compassionate; but compassion is not always love. Real love is attached, selective and enduring. In contrast, compassion does best when it is detached and rooted in time present.Mature mammalian, not just human, love involves enduring, remarkably unselfish limbic attachment. If “real” love remains remarkably independent of free will, mammalian evolution has liberated love from the reflexive neuroendocrine dominance by the hypothalamus. Mate choice and bonding, if relatively involuntary, is based on the altruistic, if still biological, motivation of oxytocin and mirror cells.
The Greek philosophers did not and the cognitive psychologists do not always understand attachment. The Greeks’ agape (universal unselfish love) is not selective, and the Greeks’ Eros (testosterone, estrogen and all-about-me lust) is not enduring. Love, like the sacred and our image of God, has a timeless quality. The spirit behind the New Testament words “God is love” can be found in even the self-consciously atheistic Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which explains to us “Love is the point at which the opposing elements of the biological and the spiritual, the personal and the social, and the intimate and the universal intersect.” The novelist Laurence Durrell reminds us that “the richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time.” In contrast, lust marches to a marvelous but much more urgent drummer. The object of a passionate one-night-stand may seem boring and ugly the next morning. But what a wonderful evening!
The Buddha feared attachment; he correctly saw attachment as the root of much sorrow. Welcome to the world of love. Love is dangerous. Indeed, for many of us, love, like joy, is sometimes difficult to bear; for love – like joy and gratitude – makes us feel vulnerable – sometimes so vulnerable that we are afraid to take love in, let alone give it back. What if your child died, or your sweetheart left you. In contrast, William Blake understood the importance of attachment: both its loss and its restoration. Thus, Blake reminds us, “Joy and grief are woven fine…Under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine.” Savor lost loves: don’t just mourn them.
What is the difference between addiction and attachment?
The lonely cynic sneers that “falling in love” is just another form of addiction. Attachment fueled by oxytocin is indeed, dangerous stuff; it makes you fall in love and never get over it. Don Juan and the Buddha had the right idea: Don’t get attached! Consider Henry Higgins’ lament: “I was serenely independent and content before we met; surely I could always be that way again—and yet I’ve grown accustomed to her look; accustomed to her voice; accustomed to her face. Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!” What is the difference between addiction and mammalian love?
Ah, let me count the ways. First, mammalian love is uniquely fueled by oxytocin and linked to limbic brain centers not linked to addiction. Admittedly, both addiction and love are fueled with the much less specific neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, interestingly, is concentrated in brain centers that also contain opiate receptors. These centers are linked to heroin addiction—an ersatz and often lethal “love”—that is also selective and enduring.However, there is a second critical difference between heroin and love. Addiction is all about me; attachment all about the other. Addiction shouts, “Alack, poor me!” Love compassionately asks others, “Are you feeling better?”
Third, we rapidly habituate to our addictions; we need more and more for the same effect. In contrast, the soft touches of real love never stale.
Fourth, an addict in withdrawal is in a crisis of sympathetic arousal: fever, sweating, tachycardia, hypertension, and irritable screams at anyone who tries to hug him. In contrast, a husband at his wife’s gravesite is in a state of parasympathetic withdrawal: sobbing gently, with slow pulse, but grateful for a friend’s arm around his shoulder. In other words, grief over a loving attachment is in some ways still a positive emotion and in time helps us to broaden and build. Addiction destroys us—physically, mentally and spiritually.
Finally, “the morning after” is always the crucial test between true attachment and addiction. Mother bears are delighted by what they find cuddled up to them the next morning; lusty participants in bacchanalias are less enthusiastic about what they find at dawn’s early light.
Where does love come from?
We do not learn how to love from religious education or from life coaching. Love does not come from the Buddha’s mindfulness.
The brain hormone, oxytocin, is released when all mammals give birth. Oxytocin seems to permit mammals to overcome their natural aversion to extreme proximity; and, thus, oxytocin has been rechristened the “cuddle hormone.” In human newborns, there is a short-lived overproduction of oxytocin. Oxytocin goes up in human puberty in parallel with adolescent crushes. Put a newborn baby in a mother’s arms or bless a couple’s sexual union with mutual orgasm and brain oxytocin levels rise. If they are genetically deprived of oxytocin, monogamous, maternal, loving prairie voles (a species of rodent) turn into another subspecies—the heartless, promiscuous, pup abusing montane voles. Without oxytocin, parental cooperation and responsibility vanishes.
But love is not just about genes and hormones. If, as the French planter sings in South Pacific, “you have to be taught to hate and fear,” you also have to be shown how to love. The ethologists studying imprinting in ducks and the evolutionary anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers know enough to show us rather than tell us how love evolves.
Love is about attachment, music, and odors; states that do not lend themselves to words. Song maybe, but not words.Thus, the behavioral self-regulation that we associate with love does not come from a solitary brain, but from one brain evolving and becoming shaped forever through attachment to a beloved other. Monkeys raised in isolation go on eating binges and cower in corners. Instead of playful roughhousing, they fight with their peers unto death; and they never really get the hang of copulation. All their lives such isolated monkeys remain inept “at doing what comes naturally.”
In contrast, isolated monkeys who are subsequently raised by mothers or with siblings for even one year can learn to roughhouse—gracefully stopping once social dominance is achieved; and to skillfully negotiate the dance steps to successful impregnation.
In closing, I may do well to remind the reader of Aren Cohen’s useful suggestion in How Sweet It Is… that love songs, too, are for the transmission of love.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
~ Robert Lowry, 1860
Editor’s note: This article is included in the Love and Be Loved chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
Cohen, A. (2008). What is love anyway?. Positive Psychology News.
Cohen, A. (2009). How sweet it is …. Positive Psychology News.
Fisher, H., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2005) Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493, 58-62.
Great Soviet Encyclopedia. (1973) Vol 15, p. 153, 3rd Edition, English Edition, Jean Paradise (Ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishing. Quote above: p. 153.
Insel, TR. and Young, LJ. (2002) The neurobiology of attachment. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2, 129-136.
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lanoran, R.. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.
Uvnas Moberg, K. (2003) The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing. Cambridge, MA: DeCapo Press.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.
New cover for Spiritual Evolution from George Vaillant
Flickr images were found with Creative Commons License:
Loving hug, labeled True Love in Albert”s photostream,
Monkey Mother and Child from KenderishShot’s photostream
Mom always knows how to make him smile from jusgre’s photostream