Love has no single definition. Over the centuries, theologians, philosophers, scientists, and artists have emphasized different relational, attitudinal, and emotional aspects of love. However, even with this complexity, one common aspect of most definitions is the following: love involves the unselfish pursuit of another’s well-being. In other words, pursuing the good of others for their own benefit – not for our benefit.
This unselfish, other-focused love can show up in different actions or expressions, often through thoughtful and well-timed acts of kindness, compassion, generosity, gratitude, patience, gentleness, and forgiveness. Love is an intentional expression and can be expressed in small ways (e.g., giving a needed hug) and big ways (e.g., making a life-long, marital commitment). Similarly, love is something that can describe a single, momentary interaction – say when a playground aid sits down to listen to a crying child, or it can characterize an entire relationship, as when two people in a relationship develop a habit, or a pattern, of continuously making loving gestures to each other.
In some respects, love is one of the most studied human qualities in all social science.
For decades, relationship researchers have studied intimate relationships – particularly romantic relationships and parent-child relationships – to uncover the key relational aspects that lead to satisfying and healthy relationships. Understanding how love functions within intimate relationships has helped us to become better romantic partners and better parents. Building upon this work on romantic love and parent-child attachment are several exciting opportunities for current and future love research.
Interdisciplinary study of love
In previous research, social scientists have studied romantic love or parent-child attachment in isolation from bigger-picture conceptualizations of love. Several researchers in the social sciences see an opportunity to engage with the complex, multifaceted conversations on love that theologians and philosophers have been having for thousands of years.
Epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele and his interdisciplinary team at Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program are seeking to develop measurement tools that align with philosophical, theological, and social scientific views of love. They plan to use these measurement tools, along with other epidemiological approaches, to explore love’s relationship to different aspects of human flourishing and well-being. Over time, this group hopes to address questions like, what causal factors contribute to love’s development, and how does love relate to other important health and well-being outcomes?
Interdisciplinary learning and sharing is also at the heart of the Love Consortium, which is a global network of researchers that facilitates the collaborative use of archived data to advance the scientific study of social connection. An emotion scholar can compare notes with a human evolution scholar who can debate with a child development expert, serving to expand the confines of any single discipline’s understanding of love.
Most of us have had experiences with other people that we would describe as “a time when I felt loved by them,” but research has not unpacked the full meaning of those encounters. University of North Carolina psychologist Sara Algoe, the project leader for the Love Consortium, draws upon an interdisciplinary network to further our understanding of “love in the moment,” those everyday experiences of love that enrich our lives.
Love on the margins
Past and current research on love has illuminated how we can better love those in our intimate circle (romantic partner, children, parents, extended family, friends), but less attention is focused on how we can effectively love those people who are at the margins or our lives.
What does it look like to love well the parents we see once a week at our kids’ soccer games, the person in the apartment next door who we bump into on the stairs, and that jerk who always parks in the space right in front of our house?
We don’t have much time to dedicate to these relationships, so how do we demonstrate love in these everyday encounters, even if they are brief? What do we know about love from our intimate relationships that transfers to these relationships at the margins?
Successfully identifying how we can increase “loving moments” in different types of relationships could help address societal problems like emotional polarization and loneliness. In early 2024, the Foundation will host a small convening of scholars, practitioners, and philanthropists to discuss how additional investment in love research can further our understanding of how to spread and promote love across divides.
Love in practice
Researchers aren’t the only ones actively exploring love’s potential as a positive force within society. Many innovative organizations are seeking to elevate the importance of love and demonstrate love’s transformative power. Here are a few examples:
- Love Education for Youth. In the United States, most adolescents receive no education on love, despite the ubiquity of questions like: how will I know when I’m in love? and how can I be a good boyfriend or girlfriend? Dr. Rick Weissbourd at Harvard’s Making Caring Common suggested that a love curriculum could help equip students with a deeper understanding into how relationships work and how to maintain them.
- Helping Opportunity Youth Build their Future. Opportunity youth are young persons between the ages of 16 and 24 who are currently not in school and unemployed. Many have experienced incarceration and difficult upbringings. YouthBuild is a youth serving organization that seeks to equip these young people with the skills for life success, and the program uniquely incorporates love as the critical ingredient that helps drive their success.
- Forming Communities of Love. Valerie Kaur started the Revolutionary Love project to help communities and individuals center the ethic of love in their life together. This group has developed a curriculum for how to love ourselves, others, and our opponents, and they seek to launch a broader movement centered on this loving ethic.
Love as a universal force
To conclude this whirlwind tour of innovative work on love, I’ll highlight two theoretical questions at the heart of the Foundation’s focus on love. First, we are interested in how different world religions conceptualize divine love. Sir John Templeton explored this theme in his book Agape Love. In his writings, he often reflected on the motivational power of divine love to inspire love for other people. The Foundation hopes to catalyze additional scholarship on the varieties of how different individuals, communities, and faiths apprehend divine love; what influences that apprehension; and the motivational power of divine love.
Finally, love and humility are critical virtues for human flourishing – one could argue that he wrote more on these two virtues than on any other topic. The connection between these two might not be evident at first. But both virtues are rooted in a recognition of the inherent value of all people. Love is the outward, other-focused manifestation – pursuing the good of the other for their own sake – especially those people whom we are most likely to overlook. Humility is the inward response – a willingness to learn from others – especially those whose life experiences might be very different from our own. Given the importance of both love and humility, would it be valuable to examine the interaction between love and humility? Does developing one make it more likely to develop the other? What is the societal impact of individuals having high levels of both love and humility? Questions like these animate our work here at the John Templeton Foundation. We look forward to supporting theoreticians, researchers, and practitioners in their efforts to better understand and practice love in a world that sorely needs it.