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The science of love

What is love?

I’m writing a book on love from a Buddhist perspective so I’ve been reading up on the science of love. Evidence from various scientific disciplines suggests that love is central to human experience. Ultimately we rely on it for our health, wellbeing and survival. However, the same studies also confirm that love is a complicated phenomenon, and not reducible to one explanation, such as neurochemicals swishing around in our brains.

Is love all about survival?

Survival is at its centre, with many layers outside of this. It has elements of addiction and attachment. In the West, romantic love tends to get overestimated, while friendship love gets underestimated. There are genetic and neurochemical components. There are social aspects including rules about who we can love and how many of them. There is a religious component, such as love of god(s) or other spiritual figures. And finally, with love comes motivation and manipulation.

Who do we love?

Human beings get to experience love in many different forms. There’s romantic love, love for children, family, friends, and spiritual figures, including god(s), if you believe in them! Then there’s love for pets, community, celebrities, and in the future potentially even for humanoid robots. Love infiltrates every part of our life and fibre of our being. As we shall see, it’s not an emotion but a need, as fundamental to us as the food we eat and the air we breathe.

How did love arise?

To make sure that we invest in our survival-critical relationships, evolution has come up with love as a form of biological glue. With love, you feel warm, content, and even euphoric as you start and maintain relationships with your partner, children, friends and so on. In this way we build a network of relationships. So love is the force which motivates us to overcome the difficulties of group living, to cooperate at a level unmatched by any other species.

Love is still about survival today

Large-scale studies have looked at the correlation between your social network and how likely you are to survive chronic illness, and even how long you will live. It turns out that the impact is massive. Being in a supportive social network reduces the risk of mortality by 50 per cent. That’s the equivalent of quitting smoking. The biggest factor is the nature of your relationships, your love. This goes for surviving illness, your mental and physical health, life satisfaction and length of life. The science confirms that love keeps you healthy and helps you live longer!

Science confirms that love keeps you healthy and helps you live longer!

Bringing more love into your life

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Further reading

A. Machin, Why we love: the new science behind our closest relationships, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 2022.