Positive Psychology of Love
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
There is no ill that love cannot heal, no problem
love cannot solve, and no evil love cannot overcome. If hope is
the oxygen that sustains life, then love is the sunshine that nurtures
it. Love is the fountain of well-being, the cardinal principle of
spirituality, and the touchstone of true religion.
It is no wonder that preachers from all religions
sing its praise in unison and positive psychologists around the
globe tout its benefits. Millions of dollars have been spent in
research on unlimited love. Conferences are devoted to sharing the
last scientific findings on compassionate love and altruism.
It is a good thing that love has captured the
attention of top scientists and religious leaders. The world would
be a far better place, only if we can harness a tiny bit of the
transformative power of love. Indeed, love is the only miracle freely
accessible to all. It is the only gift that multiplies when we give.
Yet, love continues to be in short supply.
Obstacles to love
Why do we deprive each other and deprive ourselves of what we all
possess in abundance? Why do we withhold the only thing that everyone
really wants, the one thing that can bring us true happiness? Who
has poisoned the stream of love? Why do gatekeepers spread fear
and hate to turn people away from Heaven's Gate? Why are there so
many walking wounded in faith communities? What has turned the human
heart into stone? What prevents us from doing the most natural thing
- to love and be loved?
When we observe human interactions in families,
churches and organizations, often it is the trivial things that
obstruct the free flow of love. These include petty jealousy, envy,
competitions, personality clashes, careless remarks, angry words,
rudeness, inconsideration, insecurity, mistrust, suspicion, pride,
elitism, miscommunication, misunderstanding, gossiping, backstabbing,
These are the stuffs tragedies are made of.
They may appear to be the rather innocuous, garden-variety human
foibles, yet they are capable of destroying countless lives, families
Have you ever witnessed how mean people can
become, whenever their power or status is threatened? Even an argument
over a non-consequential issue can escalate into a fight to the
death, because neither party wants to lose.
Have you ever observed how abusive religious
leaders can become, when they encounter resistance in their efforts
to control people's beliefs and behaviors? Hell is for all those
who dare to challenge their spiritual authority, because there is
no greater evil than insubordination.
What has happened to the gentle voice of reason?
What has happened to grace and kindness? In the endless competition,
most people have come to believe that might is right. They are afraid
that showing kindness may expose themselves to attack and harm.
Fear has driven away love!
Therefore, it is not enough just to map out
the benefits of love. Nor is it sufficient to identify the processes
of altruistic acts. To bring about real change in the world, a mature
positive psychology would need to address and overcome the destructive
forces that impede and corrode love.
A love test
The Greek language has three words for love
- spiritual love (agape), brotherly love (philia), and passionate
and sexual love (eros). I have written about passionate love elsewhere.
This test will focus on spiritual and brotherly love.
Love is more than a feeling. It is also a motivational
force that compels us to action. Ultimately, authentic love is a
principle to live by, and a core value that defines the essence
of our being: who we really are, when everything is stripped away
Here is a little love test to find out how much
genuine affection and compassion you really have for others.
Do you habitually and consistently --
- Engage in deeds of kindness?
- Bring happiness to others?
- Embrace those different from you?
- Consider other people's feelings?
- Have other people's best interest in mind?
- Share with those who are less fortunate?
- Help others without expecting any return?
- Stand up for the oppressed?
- Fight against injustice?
- Show gratitude and repay kindness?
- Show compassion to those who are hurting?
- Empower and build up others?
- Sacrifice self-interest in order to serve
- Love and pray for your enemies?
- Forgive those who have hurt you?
- Overlook other people's faults?
- Remain faithful to your friends when they
are in trouble?
- Treat others with unconditional positive
- Treat people with sincerity and honesty?
- Apologize and make amends whenever you have
If you find yourself having to fight against
most of the above questions, you may want to take a good, hard look
at yourself and wonder whether you have lost that gracious gift
A portrait of love
The 13th chapter of I Corinthians in the Bible
provides one of the most eloquent statements on love. Here is a
portion of that chapter:
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not
envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is
not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record
of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the
truth. It always protects, always hopes, always perseveres. Love
never fails." (I Corinthians 13:4 - 8)
What a glorious portrait of love! It is idealistic
without glossing over human frailties. Its humanity is derived from
its spirituality. Love is intentional without being conscious of
its noble intention. To love is more than doing what is right; it
involves doing what is good and kind. In giving, one receives. In
enduring, one finds happiness. This sums up the mature positive
psychology of love.
The law of love
To plummet the depth of love or to probe into
the secret chamber of the soul, invariably one is confronted with
the transcendental and spiritual nature of love. At the deepest
level, we are all yearning for the kind of love that connects us
not only with human family, but also with its Creator.
Love is not just one of the attributes of God;
it is the essence of God's nature, because God is love (1 John 4:8).
Unconditional and unlimited love is a state of being that belongs
to God, so claims Dr. Stephen Post, President of the Institute
of Unlimited Love. To participate in divine nature is to transform
love from a state of feeling into a state of being.
Divine love is embodied in Jesus as illustrated
by these verses in the New Testament of the Bible:
(a) "For God so loves the world that he gave
his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish
but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
(b) "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his
life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers."
(1 John 3:16)
In sum, the law of love is giving. To love is
to give of ourselves generously and compassionately, in spite of
fear and hate. This law demands that we love God unconditionally
and love others unselfishly.
The criterion of love
If love comes from God (1 John 4:7), why is
it that some of the meanest people are fervent believers? Where
is God's love in them? How can we tell whether someone is a loving
person? Is there a criterion to determine whether we are really
practicing the law of love?
Jesus has given us a yardstick to measure the
presence of true love. It is stated in terms of the greatest commandments
in the Law:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and
greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor
as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39).
With respect to our love for God, the criterion
is one of unconditional surrender that involves every aspects of
our being. It is an all-consuming love that reaches the deepest
recesses of our souls and the highest level of our intellect.
Such demand of total devotion to God immediately
brings to mind the dangers of religious fanaticism and radical fundamentalism.
How much atrocity has been committed against humanity in God's name?
To justify violence on grounds of enacting God's truth and doing
God's will poses the greatest threat to a civilized society.
Thank God that the greatest commandment does
not stand by itself; it must be balanced by love for people, for
With respect to our love for neighbors, the
criterion is one of consideration and kindness. Such other-directed
kindness is limited by self-interest or self-love. Individuals full
of self-loathing are not capable of loving others. Similarly, individuals
who are totally preoccupied with self-interest are also incapable
of loving others.
This second commandment serves as a powerful
corrective not only for excesses of self-love, but also for religious
fanaticism. Before one inflicts pain on others in God's name, simply
asks: Do I want others to treat me the same way? This simple exercise
of the golden rule can greatly reduce spiritual abuse.
These two commandments on love are two sides
of the same coin: it is not possible to fulfill one without the
other. We are created for God and for each other so that we may
experience, express and realize the full potential of love.
Those who claim to love God but hate their neighbors
are liars (1 John 4:20). Anyone who has truly experienced God's
love and who walks in God's love cannot help but be conduits of
By the same token, those who claim to love people
but hate God are also self-deceiving. "Every one who loves has been
born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God,
because God is love" (I John 4:7, 8).
The logic here is simple enough. The ability
to love all people, including those who hurt us and cause us troubles,
can only come from individuals who have been transformed by the
Source of unlimited and unconditional love.
Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, in his book "Love is Letting
Go of Fear" (1985), states that we can experience inner peace and
the freedom to love, only when we are "motivated to experience a
personal transformation towards a life of giving and Love, and away
from a life of getting and fear" (p.13).
Where do we go from here? What can be done to
stop the cycles of violence in the Middle-East conflict? Is there
a peaceful approach, such as Gandhi's "soul force", to overcome
terrorism? How about the problems of poverty, oppression and injustice
in the world? If love is the answer, why can't we find love's healing
Paradoxically, while the world has become smaller,
the distance between individuals has become greater. People seem
more connected with computers than with each other. We respond to
the increasing social complexity and diversity by creating more
and more rules and obstacles that separate people.
Families are unraveling, and communities are
disintegrating. Individuals may be experiencing more alienation
and loneliness than in the by-gone eras. Is there any hope of creating
a culture of love that knows no boundaries and transcends hierarchy?
All the sermons, mission statements and even
scientific findings on love have not made this world a kinder, gentler
place. Is love an intractable illusion? Has progress programmed
love out of our lives?
As I am struggling with these rather depressing
questions, Mother Theresa's life gives me reason to be optimistic.
As an embodiment of compassionate love, she has this advice for
us in her book "A Simple Path" (1995, p.99):
- We must grow in love and to do this we must
go on loving and loving and giving and giving until it hurts -
the way Jesus did.
- Do ordinary things with extraordinary love:
little things like caring for the sick and the homeless, the lonely
and the unwanted, washing and cleaning for them.
Where did she find strength for such extraordinary
love? Her answer: "I am only a little wire - God is the power"(p.xi).
Perhaps, the secret to Mother Teresa's path
to love can be summed up as follows:
- We need to experience God's healing and love
before we can become a healing presence.
- We need to live in close commune with God
before we can live in solidarity with the suffering humanity.
- To practice the law of love, we need to love
Christ and model after him.
- There is no greater happiness than devoting
one's life to loving God and loving the poor and the suffering.
You may point out that there are other pathways
to love, such as the enlightenment of Compassion Buddha or the Confucius
teaching. But Mother Teresa has given us a prototype of an authentic
Christian love that is as powerful as it is simple.
Positive psychology, in its emphasis on positive
experiences, may have overlooked the paradox that love is more likely
to be found in the midst of suffering and pain.
Organized religions, in their obsession with
power and success, have forgotten that their mission is in healing
the broken hearted, feeding the hungry and releasing the oppressed.
In journeying down that simple path with
Mother Teresa, we may be surprised by the discovery that love in
all its purity can only be found in realizing our own brokenness
and our need for healing.