What is Love?

Few human experiences have been more pondered over, more discussed and more longed for than love. Most of the songs on the radio are about it; a good percentage of popular literature and film deals with the subject. Mystics, theologians, philosophers and more recently psychologists have tried to explain it. In the build-up to some conflict, or after, religious leaders and other concerned individuals say such things as “If only we can learn to love each other …”.

The Bible claims that the essence of the most important being in the universe, God, is love. Clearly this experience, whatever its nature, is a major concern of humanity and always has been. But despite all the attention that has been given to it, exactly what love is remains elusive. We can say that we love our parents, our children, and our neighbour. Although it is clear that the loves we have for these different individuals share common features, it is just as clear that they must have important differences too. Loving a spouse includes sexual intimacy while loving a sibling or a child does not. It is quite normal to say things like “We loved Spain” or “I love Mozart” but again the components of such loves must be very different from those felt towards a flesh-and-blood person. Complicating matters further is the fact that people sometimes say they love and even think they love when they actually do not. I have heard conversations starting with “I really love you but …” followed by a list of bitter recriminations and angry complaints.

So what is this thing we call love? Many descriptions of love are more panegyric or accolade than clarifying. “Love is the poetry of the senses”. “Love is the beauty of the soul”. “Love is the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the gods”. Sayings like these, and any dictionary of quotations will include many of them, suggest that love calls forth strong sentiments and colourful fancies, but they do not really tell us anything useful about it. Moving from warm ambiguity to cool-headed precision, there are plenty of attempts to define or describe love. Probably the most famous of these from the Western spiritual tradition is the one given by Paul of Tarsus in his epistle to the Corinthians. Paul used the Greek word agape, which is usually rendered as charity or love or sometimes brotherly love. “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 believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” [1]

Of the 14 characteristics given here by Paul, more than half are negatives, that is, they tell us what love is not or what it does not do, rather than what it is and does. This is probably no accident. Paul realised, as many have before and since, that it can be easier to define some things by what they are not rather than what they are, and this is particularly true for a multifaceted quality like love. The Buddha occasionally did the same, using words for love such as avyāpada, literally hatelessness, or adosa, non-ill-will. As for love’s positive qualities mentioned by Paul, most people would agree with him that patience, kindness, humility, and unselfishness are features of love, although I suspect that others would associate believing and hoping everything more with naivety and wishful thinking.

An early Buddhist text, the Culla Niddesa, defines love like this: “Love means having a friendly nature and behaving with friendliness.” [2] Although rather stilted, Buddhaghosa’s understanding here is significant in that it sees love as being primarily about doing something to and for others, as being motivated by concern for their welfare (hitākārappavattilakkhaṇā mettā). Interesting too is his idea that by their very nature living beings are lovable or fit objects of love (manāpabhāva).

When we get to modern times we begin to have more penetrating explorations of love. The Oxford Dictionary says love is “an intense feeling of deep affection” or “a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone”. But surely there is more to love than just attachment and sexual longing. Sigmund Freud observed love with a sceptical and jaundiced eye and dismissed it as “aim-inhibited sex”. For him love was a more refined form of the sexual drive. Martin Luther King called love a “recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers”. It is unlikely that anything like this passes through the minds of two people head over heels for each other. The popular writer M. Scott Peck understood love to be “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. [3]

The problem with this and indeed King’s definition is that they pretty much exclude romantic love and close friendship. Many people are involved in genuinely loving relationships while having no spiritual aspirations. The psychiatrist and writer Colin Murry Parkes defined love as “the psychological tie that binds one person to another over a lasting period of time”. [4] This is broad enough to embrace most of the diverse expressions of love, but it could also define hate. Members of the Ku Klux Klan probably share a common psychological tie but it is nothing like what most people would think of as love.

Some modern thinkers see the defining feature of love as “robust concern”, “attachment” or the “bestowal of value”. Again most types of love have these features but they have other important or more pronounced ones as well. Other observers have emphasised that love is primarily an attitude of kindness, including towards unpleasant people. The English eccentric Quentin Crisp used to say that “love is making an effort to be nice to the people you do not like”. This and similar definitions imply that love is not necessarily a warm feeling connecting with another or others but an ongoing effort to break, suppress or resist the tendency to strike back at people we find objectionable.

All these definitions and descriptions are good as far as they go, but not all love is romantic or divine, an impulse or an act of will, an emotion or an art. Perhaps another reason why love is so difficult to pin down and why there is such a wide variety of opinions about it is because the word “love” is used so casually. The feelings and attitudes implied by the statement “I love Chinese food” would have little in common with those implicit in “We love our daughter”. The word “love” is frequently used when “like”, “favour” or “prefer” would actually be more appropriate. Then there is the problem of boundaries, of where states such as affection, closeness and fondness end and love begins.

Would it be possible to craft a definition of love that could embrace all its colours and contours, its manifestations and modalities? The reflections that follow are based on the understanding that love is an active interest in, care for, empathy towards and desire for intimacy with another or others, usually accompanied by positive feeling. This definition attempts to include all the more commonly recognised and agreed upon cognates of love and most of the mental states usually so labelled. It draws on an understanding of Buddhist philosophy and psychology but is also informed by my experience as a counsellor and some familiarity with contemporary studies of love. Let us consider a little more deeply these five defining characteristics which together constitute love.

To be interested in something means having one’s attention engaged by it and wanting to know it better. When two people first fall in love they spend much of their time getting to know each other, exploring each other emotionally and physically. At first their interest is as much curiosity as anything. Later, knowing their beloved better, their habits, likes and dislikes and then taking them into account, this interest allows them to please their beloved and thus strengthen the growing bonds between them. Couples who have been happily married for years say, probably truthfully, that they often know what their partners are going to say before they say it. During their years together they have got to know each other in ways that even close acquaintances never could.

A doctor who is deeply concerned for his or her patients will try to know everything about them and the illness that afflicts them. While young lovers will be constantly revealing information about themselves and soliciting it from their beloved, the genuinely caring counsellor might say very little to the people who have come to them for help. He or she will speak little but listen intently, once again being interested in their clients in the hope of understanding them. Someone who has come to love God will pray earnestly and study the scriptures carefully in the hope of knowing God’s will and what he wants of them. It is commonly said that love is blind and that is certainly true of the type that suddenly blazes and then quickly burns itself out, often leaving cinders of anger and heartbreak. But the love that endures does so because it is interested in the loved object, and this interest delivers knowledge and from that comes understanding.

Care is both an attitude and a behaviour. The person who cares is not just willing to take upon themself some responsibility towards those they care about but is happy to do so. Care is the opposite of being “careless” or “uncaring”, the first implying indifference and the second callousness, each of them the antithesis of love. As an attitude, genuinely caring for others might take the form of seeing to their needs, helping them in various ways, mentoring them or giving them advice. It may even involve putting restrictions on them, although this would not be done out of a desire to dominate or control but to protect the loved one until they can become responsible for themself.

The Buddha manifested all the signs of being a caring teacher. He was deeply concerned that those who came under his tutelage should grow spiritually. Once he advised his senior monks not to reprimand young novices for their each and every mistake. To do so, he said, might dishearten them, cause them to lose “even the little faith and the little love” they had and then leave. He put it this way: “If a man had only one eye his friends and family, kith and kin, would take great care of his good one, thinking ‘Let him not lose that eye too’. ” [5] He was asking the seniors to care for their juniors out of concern for their spiritual welfare. When the monk Channa confessed to Sariputta that his prolonged and painful illness was making him seriously consider suicide, Sariputta said to him: “Do not kill yourself Channa. Live. I want you to live. If you do not have suitable food or medicine I will get them for you. If you do not have suitable care I will take care of you. Do not kill yourself. Live. I want you to live.” [6]

Again these were the words of someone who deeply cared about another and wanted them to flourish. Generosity and service are sometimes motivated by a sense of duty or by religious obligation but they flow naturally from the loving heart. We delight in sharing what we have with our loved ones and we are quick to respond when they are in need. We never see this as a duty, an obligation or a burden. Caring behaviour is love transmuted into giving, sharing and helping.

Love’s third defining characteristic, empathy, is that special human ability to get out of oneself and enter into the thoughts and feelings of others. In Buddhism this quality is called dayā or anuddayā. While interest in someone gives us a “head” knowledge of them, empathy gives us a “heart” knowledge: we come to know them and thus connect with them, from the inside as it were. The Buddha was referring to being empathetic when he counselled “put yourself in the place of another” [7] and when he asked us to think: “as am I so are others, as are others so am I”. [8] To be empathetic requires a sensitivity towards others and, perhaps paradoxically, even a certain degree of detachment from ourselves. To the degree we are involved in our own feelings, concerns and perspectives, we are less likely to notice those of others and thus less likely to be able to empathise with them.

Intimacy is a physical and/or psychological closeness to someone or something. The first thing that springs to mind in relation to love and intimacy is sex, and indeed sexual intimacy is an important component of some types of love. But physical intimacy can manifest itself in other types of love too, and in other ways. When we see a child, even if it is not our own, we might have a strong desire to cuddle it or give it a hug. A warm handshake and a smile let a stranger know he or she is accepted and welcomed. When we see someone grieving or frightened, we can be moved to take their hand or put a comforting arm over their shoulder. If we know someone well we might hold them in a friendly embrace or kiss them. Physical intimacy with animals is not unknown either. A friend of mine is inordinately fond of his dog and allows it to lick his face. I have also often seen him snoozing on the couch with his dog curled up on his chest. Physical proximity and touch can both express and reinforce love. A head on the shoulder, arm around the waist and walking hand-in-hand are all common expressions of loving intimacy.

It is possible to be emotionally intimate too. The Buddha said that one of the characteristics of a loving friendship was mutual self-disclosure, the sharing of secrets. [9] We feel privileged and trusted when our loved ones tell us things they have never told anyone else. Likewise, we like to confide in those we love. It is another way of saying that they are special enough for us to invite them into our innermost being. Another form of emotional intimacy is freely expressing our deepest feelings with those we love. We feel we can cry in front of them, sometimes cry with them or tell them our fears and desires. Sharing objects that are ordinarily reserved for personal use is also a type of intimacy.

It has been mentioned above that empathy and a desire for intimacy with another or others are amongst the defining characteristics of love. This being so, it is not really possible to love inanimate objects. No matter how strong the desire for intimacy is, it cannot happen with something that has no inner life. We can be intensely interested in our country, studying its history, geography, flora and fauna so well that we know it thoroughly, but we cannot know any dimension of it beyond the physical because it does not have one. Again, no matter how much we may “love” hamburgers, Cuban cigars or Cashmere sweaters, we cannot empathise with them, we cannot be intimate with them and they have no means of doing that with us. Although reciprocity is not required for love to be present, responding positively to someone’s love usually draws more love out of us, intensifying our love for them and theirs for us. Non-living things cannot return any interest or affection we might have for them.

What about plants? We may say that we love the majestic old tree in the local park or the roses climbing along our garden fence, but can we really “love” them the way we love grandma or the family cat? The Buddha described plants as life forms with one faculty (ekindriya) although he did not specify which faculty they possessed. Daisies follow the sun as it moves across the sky and mimosas close their leaves when touched, but to the best of our knowledge plants do not have feelings or emotions in the sense that humans and other animals do. According to the definition given above, being loving, giving love and receiving it are privileges of living beings. To love is to live.

Whether we love God or our spouse, the neighbours or the family dog, whether we are receiving it or bestowing it, love often makes us feel very good. In ways that are not always easy to explain, love seems to enrich our lives, making it worthwhile despite all its complications. Psychologists tell us that those who have been deprived of love in early childhood often lack the ability to relate successfully with others when they mature. Both giving and receiving love seem to be essential factors in growing into a well-balanced, happy human being. For many people, falling in love will give them the most ecstatic feelings they ever experience. Successful marriages and close friendships make the individuals involved happier; they live longer. In survey after survey, people report that their greatest joy in life is their children. For many people their fondest and most treasured memories are not about acquiring worldly success or material gains but the special moments they have shared with loved ones and friends.

Other ways of being loving impart happiness too. If we are friendly, kind and helpful towards others they will usually respond in the same way and this elevates the general level of good feeling in all concerned. Doing a favour for someone and having them thank us makes us feel pleasantly energised. Sharing things with someone and having them express their appreciation to us can likewise lift our mood considerably. This does not mean that if we are good, kindly and loving that we will never feel down. Romantic relationships can be emotionally tumultuous, even good marriages have their “ups and downs”, and a kind act can be rudely rebuffed leaving us hurt and indignant. But it is a safe generalisation to say that those with much love experience much happiness.

Once I found a purse on the footpath. I picked it up, looked inside and discovered that it contained documents, a few keys and a large amount of money. I was not the slightest bit tempted to keep the money, but having to go to all the way to the police station to hand the purse in would have been a considerable inconvenience. I continued on my way, going through the documents to see if I could find a name or a telephone number, which I did. I noticed a telephone box ahead of me and decided to ring the number I had found. I got the woman named in one of the documents and her relief on hearing that her purse had been found was very obvious. I said I would wait while she drove to the telephone box to meet me. When she arrived she was nearly overwhelmed with gratitude. She told me all the problems she would have had to face if she had lost her documents and keys, and that the money was essential for some pressing need. We talked for a while and before parting she took my hands and said with deep feeling: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you so much!” I felt very happy and even as I write this nearly 20 years later, I still feel a mild glow as I remember it.

Why does doing good to others, being kind and considerate towards them, usually make us happy? In the incident related above I recognise that the woman’s effusive gratitude probably enhanced my self-image, and having one’s ego inflated is always gratifying. However, this cannot be the whole story. Sometimes we help others anonymously or receive no thanks for the good we have done, and yet we still feel good.

It seems that a combination of two things impart happiness when we are kind to others – simply knowing that we have eased a fellow creature’s path through life, even if just a little, and the ability to be happy in the happiness of others, a mind state the Buddha called sympathetic joy (muditā). The Buddha recognised this phenomenon although he did not explain it. “One rejoices here, rejoices there, rejoices both here and there. One rejoices recalling the good deeds one has done.” [10]

Religious teachers, philosophers and moralists are always encouraging us to be kind to others, assuring us that it will make us happy, but I suspect no-one is listening to them. When one person reaches out to help another I doubt that somewhere in the back of their mind they are thinking “Oh goody! A chance to make myself happy”. It seems that most of us know without being told that kindness and goodwill to our fellow beings leads to happiness.

However, being loving does not inevitably go in tandem with positive feelings. It is possible to do good to others with kindly intentions while remaining emotionally neutral. A nurse can care for her patients with great tenderness and dedication while remaining business-like and emotionally detached. Occasionally she may experience happiness and a sense of satisfaction when she considers that she is a good nurse or when someone expresses their appreciation to her. But such feelings need not be there every time she cares for her patients. A spouse or a parent can have the deepest love for their partner or children while sometimes being exasperated, annoyed or bored by them, even as they are helping them, making sacrifices for them or encouraging them. Forgiveness is widely considered to be an act growing out of love. However, when we resolve to forgive someone or when someone asks for our forgiveness and we grant it, we may still feel resentment or anger towards them. In fact, forgiveness is usually thought of as only having occurred when it is given despite hurt feelings. We notice our love more when it is coupled with positive feelings but the two need not go together. Love is not a feeling although it often forms an ensemble with a strong positive feeling. Love is an attitude, a behaviour and a way of relating to others. It is only when feelings are mistaken for love or are seen as its core that our relationships become complicated by jealousy, attachment and dependency. We humans have a strong proclivity to cling to feelings.

It has been said above that love is the interplay of interest and care, empathy and desire for intimacy which together create a connection between living beings and is often associated with positive feelings. It has also been said that all these components have to be actively expressed to qualify as love. In other words, love is not an idea any more than it is something we feel and then sit back and enjoy. It implies some form of physical engagement, being set in motion, being “moved”. The Buddhist scriptures comment that a mother’s heart trembles like leaves fluttering in the breeze when she sees her child after a long absence. [11] But this is not the movement meant here. It means that when we truly love someone we physically and psychologically interact with them to the point where we influence their life. This underscores what the Buddha was referring when he spoke of “loving acts of body”. [12] The Bible also emphasises that love has to flow from the heart so as to move the hands. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity for him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” [13] Love is as much a behaviour as it is an attitude.

People often talk about what they call “unconditional love”. If we can prevent the warm glow we feel when we hear this term from stopping us thinking carefully and clearly, we may have to reconsider the reality of so-called unconditional love. People have told me that their partner loves them “unconditionally” but two or three years later I hear that their relationship is having problems or even that they have separated. Some conditions, some changes in circumstances, must have altered the love they felt for each other. I recently read an article in a magazine subtitled “A mother’s unconditional love for her child”. It told of a woman’s struggles to look after her severely ill daughter and the many sacrifices she made while doing so. It was a poignant and moving story. But while this mother remained devoted to her child despite the enormous challenges, her love does seem to have had its conditions. There is little doubt that she did everything she did because the child was hers, that is, that her love and devotion were aroused by her maternal instincts. It is unlikely that she would have made similar sacrifices for a complete stranger’s child. In one place in the article the woman said “I could never have done it without the support of my husband”, again indicating that what she did was made possible in part by the help she received from another person.

This is not to deny the woman’s tremendous courage, devotion and self-sacrifice but only to point out that her love, like all states, was conditioned and influenced by various factors. It would seem that even divine love, the love of God, any god, has its conditions. We are told that God will forgive our sins only on condition that we believe in him, repent and genuinely try to reform ourselves. If we die without having fulfilled these conditions God’s subsequent judgement will result in him abandoning us to a very unpleasant fate for a very long time. Even if this is the result of choices we have made, it still makes God’s love different from what it would have been otherwise. [14]

The Buddha said that everything in the universe existed due to the coming together of a complex web of causes and conditions, and love was no exception to this. The type of love we are capable of, its strength and sustainability, is conditioned by multiple psychological factors such as our emotional make-up, our will, our beliefs, and so on. It may also be conditioned by external factors such as our social norms, the people we come into contact with and the nature of the relationships we have with them. However, to accept that our ability to love and the love we express is conditioned does not belittle it but only lets us look at it with clearer eyes. If we elevate love or indeed anything out of reality, this will prevent us from understanding it fully.

I am able to read the scriptures right now at 10 o’clock in the evening because I have light. I have light because the light bulb is working and I paid last month’s power bill. Is my ability to read the scriptures diminished in some way simply because it depends on certain conditions? Does it suddenly become impossible to learn from or be inspired by the Buddha’s words because reading them is made possible by the light bulb? If tomorrow I am charitable towards someone as a result of what I read, does that act become inconsequential just because I paid the power bill? I do not think so. Love is not robbed of its goodness and its majesty because it is conditioned.

While love is conditioned, it is also true that some love is more conditioned than others or that it is conditioned by different factors. The less conditions love requires to awaken, to grow and to express itself, the less conditions thwart it and hold it back, the more exalted it is. Romantic love requires sex or the promise of sex to stay alive and usually fades if one of these is not forthcoming. Conjugal love can be strained by long separation and rarely survives betrayal even if it does not end in divorce. Likewise, loving friendship needs to be continually nourished by trust, loyalty, shared interests and so on. Except perhaps for the highest spiritual love, most other types need to be reciprocated. What we really mean by unconditional love is a love that gives itself easily, that persists despite obstacles, that has few expectations, and that makes few demands.


  1. 1 Corinthians 1, 13. [back]
  2. This would seem to discount the depth of feeling that is usually associated with romantic and companionate love and more closely resembles what we might call affection or goodwill. The 5th century Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa was being more specific when he wrote: “Love is characterised as promoting the welfare of others and its function is to focus on their welfare. It manifests as the removal of annoyance and its proximate cause is seeing the lovable nature of beings. It succeeds when it makes ill-will subside and it fails when it gives rise to clinging attachment.” [15]Vism.318. [back]
  3. A Road Less Traveled, 1997, p.69. [back]
  4. Love and Loss, 2009, p.2. [back]
  5. M.I,444. [back]
  6. M.III,264. [back]
  7. attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā, Dhp.129; Sn.705. [back]
  8. yathā ahaṃ tathā ete, yathā ete tathā ahaṃ, Sn.705. [back]
  9. D.III,187. [back]
  10. Dhp.16. [back]
  11. Ja.V,328. [back]
  12. mettena kāyakammena, D.II,144. [back]
  13. 1 John 3,17-18. [back]
  14. See Simon May’s interesting comments on this subject in his Love: A History, pp.106-118. [back]