I make a living coaching and writing on peak performance. I know that medals won, deals closed, and promotions earned all feel nice. But I’m increasingly coming to think that if your primary goal is a long, happy, and healthy life, you’d be far better off focusing on love. This is an age-old theme across spiritual traditions. It’s also becoming a truth of modern science.
For the past 75 years, The Study of Adult Development, run out of Harvard, has been tracking the physical and emotional well-being of over 700 men who grew up in Boston in the 1930's and 1940's. It is one of the longest and most comprehensive longitudinal studies of its kind, closely following subjects from their late teens and early twenties all the way into their eighties and nineties.
Many of the findings are what you’d expect: don’t drink too much; don’t smoke; exercise often; eat a nutritious diet; maintain a healthy body weight; keep on learning. But according to George Vaillant, a psychiatrist and clinical therapist who directed the study for over three decades, the most important component to a good and long life is love.
Love isn’t easy. It needs to be cultivated. It is an ongoing practice.
“The 75 years and 20 million dollars spent on the Grant Study points to a straight forward five-word conclusion,” Vaillant writes. “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
The Study of Adult Development shows that the quality of one’s relationships has an enormous impact on the quality of one’s life. The more and deeper the love, the better.
The words “relationship” and “love” generally bring to mind a bond between two people. But perhaps that is too narrow. Can’t you also be in a loving relationship with a pursuit, with a community, or even with the natural world? Whatever it is you love, so long as the feeling is genuine, you’ll be better off for it.
“Happiness is love. Full stop.”
And yet love — whether it’s for a person, community, or activity — isn’t easy. It needs to be cultivated. It is an ongoing practice.
Unfortunately, our 24–7, hyper-connected, always-on, consumerist society can make love challenging to nurture. Far too often, the current ethos crowds love out altogether. That’s because love requires care and attention. Distraction, busyness, and incessant yearning are, in many ways, the antitheses to love.
Care means showing a genuine interest and concern for someone or something. The kind of care that is required for love is not fleeting — it’s not constantly drawn to the next best thing, the newest bright and shiny object. It is steadfast and unwavering. If you become enthralled with gardening for a month, regularly tending to your plants, they’ll begin to grow. But if after that initial period of excitement you become less interested, only watering your plants when you don’t have anything better to do, your plants will wither away and die. The care required for love to blossom and thrive is much the same.
Attention is a close cousin to care. It’s about being fully present where you are. Not where you want to be. Not where you think you need to be. But where you are. When you truly attend to something the delineation between you and it — subject and object — often disintegrates in favor of a sensation of oneness. You become the art you are making. You become the forest you are walking through. You become one with your lover. The philosopher George Leonard wrote that these bonds are sacred spaces “where God lives.” Perhaps these bonds are where love lives too. Who knows? Maybe God and love are actually the same thing.
If what love is seems a bit esoteric, what love is not is relatively straightforward.
Love is not some kind of “hack” or quick fix. Love is not the “like” button on Facebook or Twitter, or the number of connections you have on LinkedIn. It’s not constantly interrupting whatever it is you are doing or whomever it is you are with to check your phone. It’s not getting promoted or closing a big deal or even winning a gold medal.
Love is losing yourself in the process of caring about and showing undivided attention to someone or something, through ups and downs. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
Sadly, cultivating this kind of love can be in conflict with today’s ethos. But if there’s anything worth going against the grain for, it’s love.
Love is losing yourself in the process of caring about and showing undivided attention to someone or something, through ups and downs.
A few things I’m working on: Going on a weekly hike without my phone. Reading a book about something that interests me without checking social media between chapters. Turning off all electronics at 7PM and being present for myself and my family. Not getting so caught up in the outcome of what I’m doing and focusing on being completely present in the process instead. Exercising without fixating on my watch. Skipping the gossip and looking inside myself instead. Building deep, “in-real-life” community.
The potential for love — and the good life it spawns — is everywhere. It just takes some care and attention to open yourself up to it.
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Brad Stulberg writes about health and human nature and is author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.