Love and Emotion

If life is chemistry, then LOVE and EMOTION is also chemistry. We know that different emotions are triggered by specific chemical reactions that occur in the brain, although we certainly don’t experience love as a bundle of brain circuits firing away in our head. Instead, we experience or ‘feel’ the attractiveness, the warmth, the kindness, the beauty, and also the pain, of love with intense joy, passion, tenderness, hurtfulness, and jealousy.

When you meet someone for the first time that you find interesting or attractive, your brain produces a feel-good chemical (serotonin). If the feeling is returned, and you develop a romantic interest with this person, the brain creates a different chemical response (dopamine). A third chemical reaction (oxytocin) is associated with long-term attachment, such as a parent-child or husband-wife bond. All three of these emotions – attraction, romance, and attachment – produce, in us, different feelings of joy, happiness, passion, and contentment. (see Helen Fisher’s insightful book: Why We Love.)

But there is also a flip side. When things go wrong, when we suddenly break off an intense romance, or dissolve a long-standing relationship, we suffer the difficult pain of jealousy, hurtfulness, confusion and loss. These aching emotions are equal in intensity to the positive joys and passions of love, and can cause profound sadness and distress.  Painful emotions are also associated with chemical reactions in the brain.

All of these emotions, taken together, form an elaborate dance of courtship and intimacy that can often feel overwhelming. But the payoff is spectacular. If we are successful, it means we are headed for long-term joy and contentment, and perhaps the creation of future offspring.

When it comes to love, people across the world share the same kinds of intense, emotional, experiences. Learning to cope with these extreme emotions is part of what it means to be human. They are part of our evolutionary history, part of the basic instincts that have been passed on genetically from one generation to the next.

What makes us care deeply about some people and not others? Why are we instinctively attracted to certain people and less interested in others? Our unique differences and tastes as individuals determine our likes and dislikes; this is as true of the people we choose to be with as it is of our taste in music, food, or a dozen other interests.

Forming a loving relationship sometimes requires years of shared experience. On the other hand, parents who see their newborn for the first time love their baby instantaneously, and without condition or qualification. This is a kind of love that lasts a lifetime, a sublime contentment without equal. This immediate and intense attachment is necessary because human infants are completely helpless until they can walk, and because our parents would consider killing us, if not at the age of two, then certainly during adolescence!

What about ‘love at first sight’? If you ask a classroom of college students, as I have often done, whether or not they believe in ‘love at first sight’, the class as a whole, tends to be split. Some say yes, others say no. And gender doesn’t seem to be an issue; males and females are equally divided on the subject.

If love is so powerful, then why do most couples fight so much, and why are there so many divorces? How do arranged marriages, which are common in many cultures of the world, compare to freely choosing a partner? Believe it or not, arranged marriages have a better track record of success than conventional marriages. Why is this? Statistics show that the largest divorce rates occur when couples marry early in life. Sociologists have also found that childlessness, which can lead to loneliness and weariness, plays a major role in divorce. But the real answer is that love is complicated, and we don’t always know how to handle our emotions, which can lead to poor judgment and rash decisions.

Animals come programmed with basic emotions such as fight or flight, anger, appeasement, disgust, fear, and surprise. In humans, these instincts are automated in the lower brain. But we, along with other mammals, have also evolved more complex emotions, such as happiness and unhappiness, guilt and shame, longing and jealousy. Still, in humans, there are higher functions of the brain that involve emotions such as vengeance, pride, nostalgia, forgiveness, beauty, and spirituality.

Every human looks to satisfy the basic need for food, shelter, and security. Beyond that, we all share a quest for happiness. The Dali Lama teaches that the purpose of life is happiness. The American founders declared, in the Declaration of Independence, that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right. Both are revolutionary ideas. Happiness is something we all desire.

So what is happiness exactly? We know that everyone has ideas about personal happiness. But there must certainly be some shared criteria that we can point to. I don’t know of any clinical definition for happiness, but here are three things, taken collectively, that may describe a state of contentment or true happiness. The first is that you are fundamentally loved and appreciated by family or friends, and that you are generally accepted by society. Secondly, that you are able to realize your potential as an individual, to maximize your intellectual, emotional, and physical capabilities. And finally, that you are able to adapt to your immediate surroundings, to be flexible under a variety of circumstances and situations, and to adjust to these conditions without necessarily inviting compromise. Adaptability is a secret of life, of all living things.

When things in our life don’t work, when things fall apart, our self-esteem is lowered; we become stressed, angry, disappointed, depressed. The result is often loss of pleasure, joy, and as time goes by, contentment or happiness. Figuring out how to make things work is essential for our success and happiness.

When we are able to satisfy our fundamental needs, establish realistic goals, and follow our dreams, pain and stress are diminished and contentment fills the void. The implication is that humans are genetically predisposed toward a state of contentment, that most people are ‘hardwired’ to be happy. Decades of research in child psychology have shown that healthy babies are content until a basic need goes unsatisfied, or when pain or discomfort intervenes. We are born into an initial state of well-being. Only later do we allow pain and stress to block natural wellsprings of contentment and happiness.

But there are things that get in the way of our happiness, including classic times of struggle. As adolescents, our number one job is to break away from our parents so that we may become independent, mature adults. Teen-age years are difficult for everyone, and often happiness doesn’t seem to be within reach.

In our twenties, our primary goal is to discover how best to fit into the world, how to define our strengths and weaknesses and learn to make them work for us. This is no small task, because most of us don’t yet know what we want to do with our lives, and generally don’t get the help we need to forge a path necessary for our long-term health and well-being.

It also doesn’t help that our cultural institutions have agendas that are often counter to our developmental needs. Parents, for all of their love and support, really want their children to be safe. Schools today are mostly career factories. Business wants your money. Government wants your vote. The church wants your allegiance. Everybody wants something. So how do we follow our passions, or know what is really best for us?

And by the way, at the same time young adults are learning how and where they fit into the world, they are having to navigate the whirlwind forces of dating and long-term partner selection.

There are clearly times in our lives when happiness is tormented by circumstance. Ill-fate, poor judgment, and bad luck is the stuff of human legend.

As a rule, people tend to be philosophical. It is also the nature of the human spirit to seek the divine, the sublime. Many among us search for spiritual awareness and enlightenment. There are even those who abandon family and career in pursuit of a deeper inner experience.

The search for inner satisfaction is an instinct, a human drive. It is different from other emotional states such as joy, anger, fear, or anxiety. The enjoyment of fine art in its most expressive forms, the height of romantic love, the gift of birth, and the personal tragedy of death are human experiences which have the power to overwhelm our emotions. As we experience these events for the first time, it is our nature to question their deep meaning.

Most of us have known moments of deep consciousness, when we experience ourselves as completely connected to the present. We have had enlightened moments of physical activity when we are ‘in the zone’, and we have all known moments of discovery or creativity. It is also common to have experienced a heightened awareness while interacting with another person, or within a group. Any of these examples, including romantic love, listening to a memorable concert, solving a difficult problem, helping someone, creating something, or participating in an inspired sports event or group activity may provoke the sensation that the world is, indeed, bigger than ourselves; or they may remind us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Inner joy, or what some would call spirituality, is not just a good feeling, or feeling good. It is a deep contentment in which intense thoughts and emotions combine to form a powerful and integrated experience.

These feelings may be triggered by a joyous experience, by long-term sensitivity to deep human concerns such as birth, death, morality, or war, and especially by our own mortality.

The joy of inner peace combined with sensitive feelings toward others promotes individual satisfaction and provides the species with a clear survival advantage. Balancing hope and faith against the fears and anxieties of life provide a sense of long-term stability and social harmony.

We often hear the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Yet, as the French mathematician Blaise Pascal pointed out, beauty is the result of a harmonious relation between our aesthetic nature and the subject that delights us; it is always a two-way street.

Although there are a great many differences among individuals, as a group humans tend to share certain criteria for what is acceptable behavior, what is normal intelligence, and what is beautiful. We know that our experiences of beauty take place in a specific region of the brain (medial orbital) located in the frontal cortex. Most of us appreciate the beauty of a sunset, a panoramic vista, a great painting or photograph. These are instinctive tendencies, but for them to blossom, appreciation must be nurtured and kept alive.

Beauty and desire originated early in evolution with attractive colors, shapes, movements, and sounds adapted by creatures that used them for the purpose of luring mates. Bees find flowering plants irresistible. Does that mean that bees find colorful plants beautiful? There is no way to know. Female birds are attracted to beautiful colors displayed by their male counterparts. Is this desire? More than likely the visceral attraction of insects to flowers, female birds to brightly colored males, as well as similar mechanisms in other species, are the precursor to chemical brain states that arouse in us a sense of beauty and desire.

But why is beauty so fleeting? What causes our experience of beauty and desire to wane over time. All of us have experienced the emotional letdown when the intensity of a new romance begins to fade, or when a piece of music that we have listened to a little too often no longer has the same effect on us it once did. One answer is that romantic love, attraction, and desire are dangerous states to be living in for very long. Intense desire and attraction are distracting; they render us vulnerable and may cause injury or even threaten our survival.

Emotions serve us well. They are responsible for our passions and pleasures, for ‘letting off steam’ when we become angry or frustrated, and for our ability to defend ourselves, and to bond with others.

But emotions can also act as cause for conflict or disruption, for example, when we take things too personally, or guard our emotions too closely, both of which may create stress within ourselves and for those around us.

Why do we often experience emotions that seem like they are more destructive than they are useful? Expressing anger, for example, is not pleasant and it causes pain, yet we see that it plays an important role in letting others know how we feel. On the surface, jealousy seems to cause more pain and harm than good. Yet it helps, in a general way, to keep close relationships intact. In a similar way, we are cautioned by shame and guilt to be better companions and citizens.

We are easily swayed by our emotions. It is easy for us to be guided by outside interests such as advertising or popular media, and by peer pressure, even when the products and ideas sold to us are clearly not in our best interests.

And what about our highly emotional allegiance to sports teams, homeland, political affiliation, religion, and taste in music? What causes us to become so irrational when it comes to defending these intense passions? We will look at this further when we discuss society and culture.

Part of growing up, of becoming emotionally ‘intelligent’ is learning to balance our emotions with rational thought, planning, and a healthy respect for those things that are sustainable for ourselves and for society.

We are social animals, as well as individuals, and our survival as a species depends on our ability to interact with different people under different, and sometimes difficult, conditions. Understanding, and learning to control, our emotions are important keys to our sense of well-being, and to our survival. (for more detailed variations on this theme, see Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence)

Nostalgia is an emotion that everyone experiences. And it tends to get stronger as we get older. There are words for nostalgia in every known language. Looking back on an important childhood event such as a first kiss, favorite place to escape, or the neighborhood or school where we grew up, provokes strong emotions that are bittersweet.

Billions of dollars are spent each year to satisfy the almost unquenchable thirst for our need to revisit our childhood. For many, school reunions are almost impossible to resist. Movies, television and other forms of popular media have a field day returning us to our recent past. Perhaps reality is too difficult. Maybe these feelings offer a simple escape from the hardships of everyday life.

Although the feelings of nostalgia may connect us to the past, they can also lead us away from the present and distract us in profound ways.

So why are these nostalgic feelings so common and so intense? What possible survival function could they serve? Humans are neotenous creatures, we retain some adolescent features throughout our adult lifetime, and we may simply be vulnerable to intense feelings.

Or perhaps our feelings of nostalgia are instinctive, artifacts left over from our early evolutionary ancestry. For example, many species of fish eventually return to the streams where they were born to lay their eggs. Salmon, for example, after swimming thousands of miles over a lifetime, return to the exact spot where they were hatched, to lay their eggs and to die. Nostalgia may be a similar impulse, inherited from one of our earliest ancestors.

A word about kissing. The act and ritual of kissing occurs in most cultures of the world. Yet kissing may mean something different to different groups of people, or to individuals, depending on how it is done, who is doing it and what their motives are.

Is kissing instinctive or cultural? With 90 percent of the world engaged in kissing rituals, it is likely that instinct determines behavior in this case. Although, in the Himalayas and some African nations, kissing has been historically discouraged presumably to protect the local population from bacteria.

Albert Einstein suggested that all human motivation, and I suppose we could say much of human emotion as well, is driven by fear or longing.

Because of new scientific research methods, including brain scan technology, we are able to look deeply into the emotions that affect us everyday. Although we have much to learn, we continue to expand our knowledge based on what we are discovering about human behavior, our evolutionary background, and our biology, including the brain chemistry that drives our emotions.

view three Prose Poems on related subjects of happiness and addiction:

The Asymmetry of Addiction
Beauty Lost


2 Comments on “Love and Emotion”

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