Variations in love manifest at different stages of life, as highlighted below:
During childhood, love often manifests through the bond between a child and their caregivers, such as parents, siblings, and other family members. Love is expressed through physical touch, such as hugs and kisses, as well as through nurturing and care, such as providing food, shelter, and protection. When I visit my two-year-old nieces, often they express their love by offering me whatever they are eating. Love in childhood is typically characterized by a sense of security, attachment, and trust.
In adolescence, love may start to take on a more romantic and interpersonal dimension. It can involve crushes, infatuation, and the exploration of romantic relationships. Adolescents experience the excitement and intensity of first romantic feelings and often express love through gestures such as gift-giving, spending time together, and sharing emotional intimacy.
During early adulthood, love often involves the formation of deeper and more committed relationships, such as romantic partnerships, friendships, and familial relationships. Love may manifest through emotional connection, companionship, shared interests, and mutual support.
In midlife, love may involve a deeper sense of emotional maturity and stability. It can be expressed through long-term partnerships, marriages, and familial relationships. Love at this stage may include qualities such as companionship, emotional support, shared values, and mutual respect. It may also involve navigating challenges and changes together, such as raising children, caring for aging parents, or facing career transitions.
In later life, love involves a sense of wisdom, acceptance, and appreciation for the people and experiences that have enriched one’s life. We experience it through familial relationships, friendships, and connections with the broader community. Love at this stage has a sense of legacy, and passing wisdom to future generations.
The highest manifestation of love is “agape” (ἀγάπη) which refers to a selfless, unconditional love, often associated with divine or spiritual love, or a love that transcends personal interests and extends compassion, kindness, and care to others. Agape love, Greek in origin, can be expressed through acts of kindness, generosity, and empathy. Often considered a noble and aspirational form of love, agape transcends personal boundaries and fosters a sense of interconnectedness and compassion towards all beings.
An important truth about love is our ability to express love in all of our relationships: between individuals, groups, and societies, as the underlying value of business and political organizations, and in our personal social and economic activity. Erich Fromm describes this well: “In brotherly love, there is the experience of union with all men [and women], of human solidarity, of human atonement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we are all one. The differences in talents, intelligence, and knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men.”
Another sphere of action providing an opportunity to express love is through work. Psychologists Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm both saw love and work as closely related. Love and kindness in the workplace foster a positive culture and higher productivity. By working, we are able to express our love for our family through our ability to help support them, and for ourselves through excelling in our chosen career. We can show love to our co-workers too, a neighborly love of collaboration toward a common goal, acknowledging the contributions of colleagues, listening and considering the input of others, and offering support.
Eric Fromm saw love as a spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self.” The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: it springs from the need of overcoming separateness.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of the Zulu proverb in his native South Africa, which he explained thusly:
“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human…It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’[…] Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness…We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
There is a phrase in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, “Iichariba chode,” which roughly translates to, “Even if we only meet by chance, we are still brothers and sisters.”
The mystics of all religious traditions have taught us that love is not to be sought; love is what we are. Love is what is here in each and every moment. It is more about allowing it to flow through than forcing it out by effort.
As Fromm asserted that love is a state of mind, a way of being. “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment or an enlarged egotism.”
Love is our universal yearning to find what we have been separated from. Fromm went on to say love is a “spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness”
For the past 75 years, The Study of Adult Development, run out of Harvard University, has tracked the physical and emotional well-being of over 700 men who grew up in Boston in the 1930s and ’40s. 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. “The 75 years and 20 million dollars spent on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion,” Vaillant writes. “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Another framework looks at Love’s tripod consisting of three traits. The first trait, humanism, is defined as believing in the inherent dignity and worth of other humans. The second, Kantianism, gets its name from philosopher Immanuel Kant and means treating people as ends unto themselves, not just as unwitting pawns in your personal game of chess. Finally, “faith in humanity” is about believing that other humans are fundamentally good, and not out to get you.