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Loving Like Children: Out of Our Heads & Into Our Hearts

written by Suzann Pileggi 27 April 2009

Suzann Pileggi, MAPP '08, is a wellness writer and consultant. She is a monthly columnist for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) newsletter and Wisdom magazine, and a certified holistic health counselor. Suzann's website.

Suzann's articles are here.

When I interviewed George Vaillant for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) monthly newsletter, I asked him whether right-brained people find it easier to express love than left-brained folks. He thought it was an interesting and important question and suggested I write about it in my next article for PPND.

I don’t have a simple answer, but I have been reflecting on it for the last month during a trip to India with my mother for the dedication and blessing of the new building for the Evershine English school – a sponsorship school for disadvantaged children in the rural villages of Bangalore that we helped start over ten years ago.

Suzie with Indian Children

Right Brain, Left Brain

But first, a brief synopsis of right brain versus left brain. The left brain houses language, details, and analytical skills, while the right brain houses ideas, the “big picture”, and empathy – things often referred to as the “soft skills.” In schools and jobs, we tend to exercise our left-brain strengths at the expense of our right-brain qualities. But there are reasons to rebalance.

Books like Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence herald right-brain thinking and the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in an ever-changing world, rather than solely relying on left-brain thinking and IQ. Many of us have been rewarded to think rather than to feel, to strategize rather than to empathize, and to emphasize rational detachment rather than emotional involvement. However, in today’s global economy, we need to tap into our right-brain qualities to handle communication and business relations that traverse geographical and cultural boundaries.

Now, back to my initial question. My gut tells me that folks who are more right-brained have an easier time expressing love because they exhibit more “childlike” behavior, lead with their hearts over their heads, and are more adept in the universal non-verbal language of love.

Be Like Children
In India, I witnessed the simple and pure way that children express love and joy. Throughout our visit, a Bible verse repeated in my head: “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:15).

zestful boys What are little children like? They are zestful, curious, and loving. Based on research by Nansook Park, Chris Peterson, and Martin Seligman using the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths, these three character strengths are more positively associated with life satisfaction than the intellectual strengths of appreciation of beauty, judgment, and love of learning. I believe that the bible verse reminds us to revel in the childlike behaviors of unconditional love, wonderment, and unabashed enthusiasm.

Lead with the Heart, not the Head

The number one thing that leads to happiness is love. Children are more open to giving and receiving love, where adults may recoil from it to avoid rejection, intimacy, and the unknown. Adults may fear taking risks and overthink negative “what ifs.” As Dr. Vaillant remarks, “love is biological” but “love, like grief is often difficult to bear.” Being like children and getting out of our heads and into our hearts may help us jump right in rather than dip in our toes.

Practice Non-Verbal Communication

Suzie and Indian Boys In his book, Pink remarks, “To enter another’s heart, you must begin the journey by looking into his face.” Traveling in India I witnessed the power of nonverbal communication. Unlike words, facial expressions do not lie. I felt love and compassion from the genuine Duchenne smiles on children’s faces. I could feel their warmth and compassion, even though I couldn’t verbally communicate because I didn’t know their language. Indeed, a face can paint a thousand words.

Paul Ekman’s discovery that facial expressions are universal supports Vaillant’s findings that love is biological. Raising eyebrows for example indicates surprise in New York City as it does in New Delhi. “People’s emotions are rarely put into words; far more often they are expressed through other cues,” writes Goleman.

Love is often expressed nonverbally and through emotion. George Washington University neurologist Richard Restak remarks that people primarily express emotions and read those of others through the right hemisphere. Goleman agrees that the mode of the rational mind is words, while the mode of the emotions is nonverbal. Since our faces are the primary stage for displaying our emotions, our ability to express the emotion of love may be hindered if we are not as prone to nonverbal communication. Right-brained non-verbal communication is a universal language that connects us across countries and cultures.

Through their smiles and exhilarating two-hour song and dance performance, I felt more love and connection with the Indian schoolchildren than I did through conversation. While a vital mode of communication, sometimes “words get in the way,” to quote a popular song. “Love is not about words. Love is about attachment, music, odors, and spiritual ecstasy,” exclaims Vaillant. Love does not live in the rational part of the brain but rather in the same limbic olfactory brain where scents, caretaking, and memory all come together.

Although I can’t easily put into words the beautiful, loving experience I had at Evershine English School in India, I can call up the pleasant scent of jasmine, the riveting Indian melodies the children sang, and their radiant smiles when I savor my experience. It makes me think that love is indeed more easily expressed through the right side of the brain where music, memories, scents – and children – seem to reside.



Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R. & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Pan-cultural elements in the facial displays of emotions. Science, 164, 86-88.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.

Haidt, J. & Keltner, D. (1999). Culture and facial expression: Open ended methods find more faces and a gradient of universality. Cognition and Emotion, 13, 225-226.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Park, Peterson, Seligman (2004). Strengths of Character and Well-being.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.

Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Penguin Books.

Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. Riverhead Hardcover.

Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

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george vaillant 27 April 2009 - 4:21 pm

wonderful job, Suzie. Keep on educating us as well as your Indian school children.

Christine Duvivier 27 April 2009 - 7:16 pm

Suzie, I love your article on Love and Children! Your work in India is inspiring– thanks for sharing some of your experiences. Thanks, too for letting me know about the Right-brain future book. I’d like to read it.

Elaine O'Brien 27 April 2009 - 10:51 pm

Dear Suzie,

What a wise, timely and loving article. Your writing, work and colorful photos of the Evershine School are elevating! I appreciate your reminding us about the beautiful Right Brain (part of my favorite organ). Good on you for sharing, so eloquently, the value of those “soft skills” for living well and “doing good.” Ahh, meaning. I appreciate all your important references, but I especially love those of George Vaillant.

Cheers and best to all,

Suzie 27 April 2009 - 11:33 pm

Thanks for your support, George! Thanks for your inspiration behind the article! I’ll do my best to keep on educating if you promise to keep on inspiring all of us! 🙂


Suzie 27 April 2009 - 11:37 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed the article and hearing about my experiences in India with the Evershine English School. The children are near and dear to my heart and I want to share their beauty with the world. I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s book. It’s a quick read and truly fascinating. Enjoy!


Suzie 27 April 2009 - 11:40 pm

Thanks Elaine. Yes, the brain is a fascinating organ, isn’t it?! Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad you felt elevated by my article. Please thank George because he was the inspiration behind it! 🙂


Lisa 28 April 2009 - 3:30 pm

Great insight! I enjoyed this article very much!

“a right brained mom”

Scott Asalone 28 April 2009 - 8:31 pm

Love the article and the challenge it presents to us to uncover how we love more and identify some of the characteristics. This idea of “being like a child” resonates in many areas. Warren Bennis, one of the leading authors in corporate America, talks about the power of being like a child in his book, Geeks and Geezers. He uses the concept of neotony and applies it to human interaction. Neotony is the display in adult animals of childlike affectations. Bennis applies it to leaders and says that we enjoy leaders who show more child like qualities. Is it because they are more loveable? And conversely, are they able to love more? Your article raises lots of questions. Thank you. And thank you for all of the good things you are doing at your school in India. That is truely Positive Psychology at work.

Nancy Georgini 28 April 2009 - 9:27 pm

Ah, if we all could all be a little more right brained:) Such beautiful souls you met on your trip. Makes me think if we could all just play and laugh more too. Thanks for such a great article.

Kathryn Britton 28 April 2009 - 9:44 pm

I’ve been thinking that workplaces should have laugh-o-meters to give people positive reinforcement for laughing on the job. It’s often a great sign that people work well together.


Suzie 29 April 2009 - 12:52 am

Lisa, Scott, Nancy, and Kathryn,

Thank you all for your wonderful comments and support.
I’m glad you all enjoyed the article and are interested
in the work I’m doing at the Evershine English School. It’s very near and dear to my heart! 🙂

Lisa, keep on being a “right-brained” Mom to your children!

Scott, I will definitely check out “Geeks and Geezers.” It sounds like an exhilarating book. Thanks for the recommendation. In the future, my dream is to bring positive psychology courses to Evershine!

And, yes, laughing and playing more at work would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, Nancy?! A “laugh-a-meter!” That’s one of the best ideas I heard in awhile, Kathryn. How great!


Senia Maymin 29 April 2009 - 11:03 am

Nancy, what a lovely comment on Suzie’s article! Scott’s comment made me think of this week’s Boston Globe article about the brains of children.

Suzie, what a fun discussion here and what a beautiful feel to the article!

Angela 29 April 2009 - 12:02 pm

What an amazing experience! Yes, we communicate in so many ways beyond words, and that’s what makes all people and cultures so unique. We should think more this way to help make our daily lives more rich; we get so caught up in thing that – in the big picture – don’t really mean that much.

Bill Ryan 29 April 2009 - 3:07 pm

Great article, well expressed. I am trying to figure what I am thinking and how I am feeling. I’ll work on that.
The joy in the photos says it all.

Suzie 30 April 2009 - 4:15 pm

Senia, I’m glad you liked the article. I tried to tap my inner child and make it fun! 🙂 Thanks so much for posting the Boston Globe article. I just read it and absolutely LOVED! Wow, what fascinating research on baby’s brain. I felt like I always intuitively “knew” their brains were different but now the rational side of my brain has proof! Thank you, thank you!

Suzie 30 April 2009 - 4:17 pm

Yes, Angela, if only we can be like children and pay attention to things that make us feel more alive and bring us joy rather than getting ensnared in things that don’t really matter! Thanks for your comments!

Suzie 30 April 2009 - 4:21 pm

Thanks Bill! Once you’ve figured out the thinking/feeling thing, please share your secret with us! 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures. They bring joy to me whenever I look at them. Being a very visual person, I feel that sometimes pictures speak volumes and can really convey and call-up feelings in us that sometimes get lost with words, especially those very special fleeting moments.


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