I was originally going to post this on Valentine's Day but Brook, somewhat jokingly (but also not), convinced me to give people a break and not shatter their Valentine's Day romantic illusions, especially since most people already had plans in place. So let's call this a post-Valentine's look at love.
Romantic love is one of the most commonly pursued things in the West (notice I said, "the West" and not the world because in fact, there's excellent evidence that our notions of "romantic love" are more culturally generated than pegged to any kind of deep or enduring human truth). Most of us believe that romantic relationships are essential for happiness and fulfillment.
Unfortunately, as we explore in-depth in The Bliss Experiment, it's pretty much the exact opposite. The headlong pursuit of romance is one of the surest ways of creating misery for ourselves that we've yet concocted. Let's face it, for every pop love song, there seems to be an offsettingly sad break-up song. Heck, Adele just won six Grammy Awards by peddling some of the best breakup music ever written.
This isn't to say that love doesn't exist. That's the problem. We've come to conflate "romance" with "love." They are not the same. True love absolutely exists. The capacity to give and receive genuine love resides in each of us. But genuine love is far larger and more expansive than romantic love. The reason romance ultimately fails and makes us unhappy is that it is too narrow and too fleeting.
It's fleeting in the sense that it always disappears over time. Study after study has shown this. The average lifespan of romantic love is just 18 months. Moreover, there's excellent scientific evidence that this kind of "romantic" love does not make us happier over time. At best, it gives us a very quick rush of false happiness that quickly subsides. It's not a lasting solution for finding genuine happiness or meaning.
Romance is too narrow in the sense that it takes our human capacity for true, unconditional love--a boundless form of love--and it squeezes, pinches, and narrows it down so that something infinite becomes focused on just one other person. This kind of limiting is the opposite of the soaring, expansive kind of love that uplifts our souls.
Just as badly, it sends the message to ourselves that genuine happiness lies outside of us, in another person. That we are ourselves are incomplete, we have a gaping hole or lack inside us, that can only be filled by something external, in the form of another person. This makes our happiness completely dependent on outside people and circumstances beyond our control, which in turn always brings with it a sense of insecurity that undermines our prospects for true joy and inner peace.
Finally, the romantic delusion reduces other people to a quid pro quo, an almost economic like exchange. Think about it: in return for "romantically loving" someone else, we need and expect their love in return. If they don't return it, eventually we move on until we find someone who will. Part of our motive in loving, then, becomes to get something back for it. Our supposedly "beloved" really becomes like an object, a thing, a transaction for which we expect to gain something in return. This isn't true love, this is barter.
Unconditional love is something else entirely. It is when we connect in with the boundless, limitless capacity within ourselves to love other beings--not just one or two but everyone--without there needing to be a specific reason and without there needing to be anything that we gain ourselves. We love because we love. And in so doing, our spirit expands and our consciousness rises.
This doesn't mean that human relationships aren't important. They are very important! But to be successful, we must approach them in the right way, with the right spirit. We must see them not as things outside of ourselves that deliver happiness to us but rather as creating opportunities for us to develop and practice our capacity for unconditional love, as vehicles through which we can continually get in touch with and refine our own infinite capacities. When we can do this, we find that the effects of living a life of unconditional love never disappear or lessen, they only grow and expand, continually lifting us upwards toward bliss.