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Understanding love and happiness

The links between love and happiness are ancient. Plato discusses the integral role of love in happiness in The Androgyne, from his Symposium, writing: “Love supports us and heals precisely those ills whose alleviation constitutes the deepest human happiness.”

Plato wrote in the 4th century BCE but his words ring throughout history. They’ve been interpreted by different cultures across the many time periods since then. Each generation has added a unique spin on the links between love and happiness. Modern beliefs highlighting the role of love in the pursuit of happiness have historical roots, but love as we think of it today — all heart-stopping romance and joyful enduring feelings — is not always the love of centuries past.

The Androgyne describes a myth in which humans were originally eight-limbed, two-headed creatures that were cut in two by Zeus after arousing the wrath of the gods. Thus, our current physical form is described as being only half the whole we used to be, with our human desire for a mate thought to reflect this need to achieve the previously held — but fictional — completeness. Plato later clarifies, “Love is just the name we give to the desire for and pursuit of wholeness.” In modern culture, being whole is thought of as having found your ‘other half’. Swallowing this belief verbatim puts intense and often unrealistic pressure on your romantic partner to be the sole reason for your happiness and wholeness.

Reinterpreting love

The concept of romantic love was honoured by the Romans, reinterpreted by the Arabs and reappeared in the age of chivalry, through the 12th and 13th centuries, with the semi-historic tales of Arthur, his knights and the Round Table. More recently, Queen Victoria, who ruled England for most of the 19th century, is notable for having had a true loving relationship with her husband Prince Albert, a partnership that has been described as passionate, both inside and out of the bedroom.

While it seems Plato is suggesting love must be filled by another person — “We human beings will never attain happiness unless we find perfect love, unless we each come across the love of our lives and thereby recover our original nature.” — finding perfect love is something any part of life may provide, rather than just one person in it. For some, the perfect love is a career to which they are devoted. For others, it’s a cause close to their hearts. For others still, it’s the more classic interpretation, that of love of another human.

In modern culture, love seems to mean just this one thing — romantic love of another person — yet the ancient Greeks had four words for love, signifying the varying kinds of positive, loving feelings one might have for another, depending on the nature of the relationship.

Agape is their word for unconditional, selfless love, the kind you might share with a long-term partner or a child. Eros describes sexual or erotic love and reflects the passionate love you have solely for your sexual partner. Philia is the kind of love you might share with a friend, your extended family or community; the love of service if you will, a general kind of love. Storge is commonly used to describe the love in families, especially for those family members you might think of as loveable rogues —those whose dark sides you have to accept to love them.

As the song tells us, “Love is a many splendoured thing.” Love is not a static, once-obtained, always-the-same experience. Love evokes different moods, physical responses and desires, depending on its age and stage. When thinking of love and happiness, it may prove more satisfying to broaden your definition of love, as, while The Beatles sang, “Love is all you need”, love is not as simple as it may first appear. Love can contribute to a happy life but when love goes wrong it’s feelings of sadness rather than happiness that emerge.

Stages of love

Early or new love differs from long-term love in expression and emotional response. These emotions are separate again from the feelings of desire and love that are aroused through sexual intimacy. All these facets contribute to love’s brilliance, like a much-admired diamond that, while appreciated for its sparkle, is hard to define.

For some, that giddy feeling of new or young love means happiness, but for others the stability and security that emerge through established love bring a deeper sense of happiness. For others still, happiness in love means sexual intimacy and it may only be through physical closeness that they feel truly happy in love.

Each of these types of “happy” really expresses a different positive feeling. In early or new love, it’s excitement and the discovery of what’s new and different. In established love, there’s contentment and comfort. In sexual love, there’s passion and satisfaction. So when it comes to love and happiness, there’s more to it than a permanent smile.

Attraction or infatuation

Writing in Committed: A Love Story, the follow-up to her bestseller Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert comments, “Infatuation is the most perilous aspect of human desire. Infatuation leads to what psychologists call “intrusive thinking” — that famously distracted state in which you cannot concentrate on anything other than the object of your obsession.”

She continues, “Infatuation alters your brain chemistry, as though you were dousing yourself with opiates and stimulants. The brain scans and mood swings of an infatuated lover, scientists have recently discovered, look remarkably similar to the brain scans and mood swings of a cocaine addict — and not surprisingly, as it turns out, because infatuation is an addiction, with measurable chemical effects on the brain.”

If you’ve ever fallen in love, you’ll be familiar with the euphoric feelings that accompany those heady days of budding romance. In new love, or while in the throes of developing attraction or infatuation, the monoamine neuro-transmitters dopamine, noradrenalin and serotonin are active in the brain, leading to what appears to be insatiable cravings for the object of your desire. Dopamine is also the neuro-transmitter active in the brains of drug addicts, so it’s no wonder new love feels like being on a high.

Anthropologists tell us there are good reasons for the extreme high felt in the early stages of love, as well as its change anywhere between the 18-month to three-year mark, and they all come down to biology. In her 1994 paper, The Nature of Romantic Love, anthropologist and author Helen Fisher describes how intense attraction is driven by a necessary evolutionary urge to procreate. Fisher notes the peak in monoamine neurotransmitter influence begins to fade after about three to four years, which is just the amount of time a human pair would need to stay connected to provide protection and support for child rearing.

It appears that, while you can choose your mate you can’t consciously control how you feel about them — or if, when and in what ways those feelings you have for them may change. Fisher concludes her paper by noting that, while cultural and personal factors influence the who, what, when, where and how regarding choices to do with romantic partners and relationships, they do not explain what we feel. “Instead, these emotions are generated by brain-body physiology.”

The infatuation or falling-in-love experience can lead to temporary increases in happiness, as if the person in your life has answered your prayers and solved your problems. In the glow of new love, all things seem possible. What’s often colloquially referred to as “being in the honeymoon phase” is simple biology, designed to help you attract a mate for fundamentally reproductive purposes.

Alas, this high can only fail at some point. And fail it does, often between 18 months and three years, when the dopamine-induced rush of love high comes to an end, dwindling either to nothing, at which point a relationship ends, or beginning to be replaced by physiological effects linked to oxytocin and aldosterone (vasopressin), which create feelings of stability and calm. However, all is not lost, for this is when the potential for long-term love begins.

The biology of lasting love

It’s when exploring key qualities of long-term love that a broader definition of romantic happiness appears, one that includes emotions not just of elation or joy but those of contentment, satisfaction, stability and shared affection.

Reassuringly — and contrary to earlier beliefs — a 2006 study by researchers from Stony Brook University in New York, Rutgers University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests that many of the positive feelings associated with being newly in love can be sustained and developed in long-term relationships.

Exploring whether or not long-term love was similar to early-stage love, and whether or not long-term pair bonds share common brain activations with parent-infant bonds, the research team discovered “that for long-term romantic love many more brain regions were affected compared to those found among newly in-love subjects”.

Combining their research with previous studies, the 2006 study indicates that for all its giddy feeling, those newly in love — in relationships less than two years — “may not reflect the physiology of full-blown attachment bonds”. Even though the high of new attraction dims, its potential replacement feelings — stimulated by oxytocin and vasopressin — can add to the overall level of contentment in relationships. Rather than the almost overwhelming sense of desire of new love, long-term love supports feelings of calm, safety, stability and security.

The 2006 study also notes “results for long-term romantic love showed recruitment of opioid and serotonin-rich neural regions not found for those newly in love. These systems have the capacity to modulate anxiety and pain, and are central brain targets for the treatment of anxiety and depression.” Long-term love thus has the capacity to bring a unique kind of calm and contentment — key criteria of happiness — into your life.

In conclusion, researchers note, “These data suggest that the reward-value system associated with a long-term partner may be sustained, similar to new love.” Staying together can lead to the development of new feelings, as shown by activation into areas of the brain not triggered in early love (the opioid- and serotonin-rich regions).

Will commitment make you happy?

While the different feelings and phases of love can be traced to physiological influences, is it really the key to happiness?

In The Case for Marriage, Linda J Waite and Maggie Gallagher argue, “The promise of permanency is what makes marriage more of a beneficial relationship than simply living together”, suggesting that if you’re in a long-term relationship but aren’t married, actually entering “conjugal bliss” may add to your sense of satisfaction and happiness regarding the relationship.

Having reviewed more than 100 studies on the impact of relationships on individuals lives, exploring health, professional and happiness criteria, Waite and Gallagher conclude that not only are married couples more likely to be successful at work, live longer and have better, more frequent sex, they are also happier.

They note that 40 per cent of married couples report being “very happy with their lives”, compared with just 25 per cent of singles. Waite and Gallagher comment, “Overall, perhaps surprisingly, the evidence gathered by social science points more in the direction of an older, rosier view … Marriage appears to be an important pathway toward better emotional and mental health.” Their research notes, “Married men and women report less depression, less anxiety and lower levels of other types of psychological distress than do those who are single, divorced or widowed.”

Even more persuasive for the case of marriage and thus relationships as key influences on happiness is this statement: “One study of 14,000 adults over a 10-year period found that marital status was one of the most important predictors of happiness.”

There is a variety of reasons why functional, long-term, committed relationships are thought to make people happier and healthier. These include the positive impact of having an inbuilt support system — work and life stresses can be more readily discussed with a caring other, helping alleviate stress; partners can help each other keep tabs on health considerations such as weight, exercise and diet; and with financial resources being pooled, couples have greater potential for material security. While being healthy or financially stable alone won’t make you happy, they add to your overall happiness picture, and having a supportive partner makes it easier to create what might be considered co-factors for happiness.


In the playing field of love, does sexual intimacy influence happiness?

Sex can be the greatest of pleasures when you connect with a lover openly and with trust. However, add in tiredness, tension regarding home, family or financial concerns as well as body image anxiety and sex can become a minefield.

Humans mate to reproduce but are one of just a handful of mammals that have sex for pleasure as well. Good sex can add to overall levels of happiness. A 2008 study by Susan Davis and Sonia Davison from Monash University showed that women who were sexually satisfied were generally happier overall. Unfortunately, the study wasn’t able to determine whether women were happier before or after enjoying sex, but the connection between sexual satisfaction and happiness suggests it’s a link worth exploring.

Sex offers its own benefits, increasing oxytocin, which helps bonding and reduces the effects of stress. On the subject of whether or not sex can make you happy, Dr Goldstein, director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in California notes, “When you have good sex, there’s a relaxation response and a satiation response. You lie there and life is great.”

A combination of feel-good hormones pulsates through the body during arousal, as a result of orgasm and after climax. Being sexually intimate can enhance the special nature of your bond with your partner as well as release a rush of feel-good simulants through your body. These in turn trigger feelings of contentment and relaxation — in life generally as well as within your relationship.

Enhancing relationships

There are many enduring tips on how to sustain happy relationships. Simple factors such as making quality time for your partner, communicating openly and sharing domestic or family responsibilities never go out of style.

Embracing the concept that there is a third entity between the two of you — the relationship itself — that needs time and attention separate from what’s required as individuals can also help. As can what’s being revealed by new research about added extras you can explore to raise your levels of satisfaction in love.

The work of Shelly Gable, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, provides some clues as to what helps make a relationship strong. Her work explores the way partners respond to each other’s good news, such as receiving a pay rise or achieving a desired personal goal.

Gable categorises responses four ways: active/constructive, where your partner “reacts enthusiastically”; passive/constructive, where your partner might “point out the potential problems or downsides of the good event”; active/destructive, where your partner “says little but conveys they’re happy to hear the news”; or passive/destructive, where your partner “seems uninterested”.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, notes, “Shelly’s work holds a crucial lesson for all of us who want to transform a good relationship — marriage, parent or friendship — into an excellent one.” What’s been discovered is, “Couples who report an active/constructive mate are more in love, more committed and have more marital satisfaction.” Expressing unqualified support for your partner’s positive experiences can add to the level of satisfaction and happiness in your relationship.

In the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project, writer Gretchen Rubin makes a thought-provoking point. “I’ve never forgotten something I read in college, by Pierre Reverdy: ‘There is no love; there are only proofs of love.’ Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only my actions.” Rubin’s sharing of Reverdy’s quote is timely, perhaps offering a reminder that no matter how much you feel inside, it’s only through your actions — or lack thereof — that your nearest and dearest will see and experience your love.

According to Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, people express and receive love in different ways. As you strive to show more “proofs of love”, it may be worth exploring whether your partner feels most loved by quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service or physical touch — the five languages of love Chapman defines in his book.

Maintaining a sense of independence is also important. Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran wrote, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of heaven dance between you.” Psychologist Jennifer Kunst agrees, writing in an article in Psychology Today, “Mature love is the kind of love where two separate people come together, each working to become whole in and of themselves. And out of this wholeness, they meet and build something stronger together than either would have alone.”

Kunst continues, “When two separate selves come together, there is opportunity for sacrifice, sharing and mutual enrichment. Separateness makes room for trust, which cannot develop if you are never apart. It also builds real security because we feel truly loved not when we are loved at our best, but when we are loved at our worst.”

Communication is integral to enhancing loving relationships. This doesn’t mean you have to discuss things until you both come to a shared agreement. In fact, simply airing differences of opinions can bring you closer together. Non-judgemental communication, where you both actively avoid reactive responses, helps cultivate an attitude of curiosity. Even after years together, it’s possible to be surprised by a partner’s point of view or opinion.

Happiness is individual, and each person’s overall level of happiness is affected in unique ways by relationship experiences. Studies have shown that supportive, lasting relationships have a positive impact on happiness and health. Your efforts towards enhancing relationships — either the one you have or the one you’re intent on creating — can reward you long into the future.


Kelly Surtees is an internationally published writer devoted to expanding her wellbeing through personal growth. Her geographic home is in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

Kelly Surtees

Kelly Surtees

With more than 14 years in private practice, Kelly Surtees is experienced, warm and insightful. She loves exploring astrology’s history as well as escaping into the ocean. Kelly’s passion for astrology is infectious, and her specialty areas include career and life direction, health and fertility, love, health and happiness. Kelly is an expat Aussie who lives in Canada most of the year.

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