Sex, Love, & Happiness (special edition)
What's the relationship between romantic love and happiness?
What do sex and love have to do with happiness?
The short answer to this question is - I have no f--king clue.
But as a Zen monk, instructor, and nerd who studies happiness – I probably ought to figure it out. And I have an additional qualification: I have very addictive tendencies and a propensity for “accidentally falling in love”. My turbulent romantic history and neurotic propensity for self-examination make a wonderful “personal happiness laboratory” to study this question.
So here are a few notes from the lab on sex, love, and happiness.
One year ago I had a beautiful fling of a love affair that began – where many great love stories begin – at the local Dollar General.
At the risk of generalizing – I found it pretty surprising to find a beautiful, blonde, 20 something working the reg at Dollar gen (truly a diamond in the rough). I shared how surprising this was, with her. And it went over pretty well. Well enough for us to run into each other later that week at the bar and close it down shooting pool together ‘til 2 AM.
The next afternoon we took her dog to the park. I spent the night. And the rest is history. The next month was one of those leave-it-all-on-the-line summer love type things where you cram a few years of burning passion into a searing hot few weeks.
I was accidentally in love (again).
But life keeps blasting along on its unceasing march forward. And we had to acknowledge the reality of being pulled apart by life circumstances. She was staying for 2 more years then going to law school. I was going to live as a Zen monk then surrendering to the “real world” after putting it off for as long as possible.
Reason squeaked out a rare victory over passion, and we went our separate ways on good terms. We remained friends and wanted the best for each other.
Now this essay was triggered by her posting a picture with some new guy – a pretty good looking guy at that (totally unfair!). Now I – like other people who write unsolicited essays on the internet – am pretty normal and rational. I know I have no valid reason to let this image have an emotional effect on me. Especially considering I genuinely want her to be happy and move on.
But it does. I feel like Jackie Moon getting punched in the jejunum. And that’s why romantic love is such an interesting case study for happiness.
I’ll offer a point, counterpoint from my studies and personal experience.
The case against love in optimizing for happiness.
I’ve found that Buddhism provides a useful working manual for the study of happiness. I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t know that I “believe in Buddhism”. Rather I believe that Buddhism – and other wisdom traditions – are maps.
The map is not reality. It is a representation of the reality. They’re not literal. They’re conceptual representations that help us navigate the world.
Buddhism is a great happiness map. It all about navigating the human condition. It states that most of our suffering comes from our deeply ingrained responses to external phenomena. If you’ve ever had cravings for junk food, booze, nicotine, TV, etc. then you’ve had a taste of this. If you’ve ever been heartbroken and longed for someone, then you’ve gotten more than a taste.
The Buddha taught that such craving creates suffering (anxiety, tension, discomfort, longing, etc.). Then we get what we desire, and it feels good for a bit. But it’s fleeting. And it leaves us with even more unfulfilled desire. And if we can’t continuously fulfill this desire, we suffer. This sort of pulls us into a rabbit hole of perpetual suffering – chasing after desires like a man on the beach trying to capture and hold onto the good waves and avoid the bad ones.
Now Buddhism doesn’t say you should do away with all preferences or desires or pleasant sensations (at least in my reading of it). Rather it advocates a middle way between pleasure-seeking hedonism and self-denial. It’s a path of temperance.
The Buddha himself lived as a prince with infinite luxuries then as an ascetic monk who starved himself to near death. His conclusion – you should probably hang out somewhere in the middle. You should nourish yourself, enjoy yourself, but not overdo it, intoxicate yourself, or get sucked into the unfulfilled desires rabbit hole.
Most importantly, the Buddhist map recommends that you make your happiness rooted in yourself. Sure, it may be influenced somewhat by external circumstances, but it’s firmly grounded in you. You should work to cultivate happiness through internal conditions and those conditions should not be dependent upon things you can’t control.
We all know people who are up and down like a rollercoaster. You say one little thing and they’re down for the count. And there are others so secure that nothing can touch them. They’re happy and resilient in the face of unimaginable challenges. You probably know which of these two is better off.
So, my problem with sex and love is that it seems I can’t help but let my internal conditions become dependent. Romantic love sets me on a roller coaster. One second, I’m in the clouds – high as a kite. Then she doesn’t text back, and I can’t even sit still without feeling pulled towards my phone.
If you’ve ever been in that second group – you know it’s a little taste of hell.
Now I’ve done a lot – eaten lots of junk food, drank lots of booze, and even abused my fair share of oxycodone (in a previous life). And there’s nothing in my experience that has dominated my inner conditions as much as love. Yeah the highs are great. But the lows are LOWWW. In my opinion, much worse than the come-down from these pleasures I mentioned before.
Perhaps drugs serve as a useful metaphor. Friendship love is like smoking weed. It’s a pleasant high. It goes good with most activities. It isn’t very addictive and doesn’t have much of a hangover. It’s manageable. In this metaphor – romantic love would be heroin. There’s no managing it.
You get hooked and it takes over your life. You re-shift all your priorities. You move across the country. You change your job. It’s all you think about…Wait – am I talking about love or heroin?
Ahhh – my point exactly!
It seems that love is – at best – the riskiest wager possible. You’re basically betting the happiness house on this other person. And if things somehow go perfectly you win the lotto. But – as most risky gambles go – things often don’t turn out as planned.
Maybe the optimal choice for happiness is to do with love what I did with opioids. I said never again. They’re just too damn good (and that’s the problem).
The case for love in optimizing for happiness.
The best argument for love goes back to the idea of a middle way from before. It’s the idea that happiness is enjoying life and fulfilling your needs while avoiding the extremes.
Here’s a simple exercise. Should you eat all the time? No. Should you never eat? No. Should you sleep 3 hours per night or 15 hours per night? Neither.Eating and sleeping are needs. You can’t renounce them, and you shouldn’t abuse them. A Zen teaching says that the height of wisdom is to eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired.
So, if love (romantic companionship type love) is a need, then it’s best not to reject it outright.
There are historical patterns to support this view. Pretty much every time a religious institution or values system has tried to suppress sexuality and companionship it has ended in disaster. (See Catholic Church).It seems us humans – at least the vast majority – need sex and love just as much as we need food and water. Sure, we don’t need it every day – but we still need it. (And hell I wouldn’t complain about having it every day either).
If romantic love is in fact a need. Then I’d prescribe treating it as we do food. We can’t give it up. But we have to engage with it wisely. We should be fulfilled by it but not dominated by it. We should answer this question: Is love serving you or are you serving love?
Swearing off romantic love often spells disaster. But losing oneself in the turbulent push and pull of love’s chemical reactions leads to just as much suffering. We should strive to meet our needs without becoming addicted.
Love: A Settlement
I still haven’t reached a mental consensus on this yet. But this essay (and my attention span) is coming to an end. So I’m ready to come to a settlement of sorts.
My best approach to the romantic love question is what I call loving non-attachment or grounded love. This means you should meet your needs for sex, love, and companionship but not get lost in them. This is sort of a less addictive love.
The easiest way to understand what I’m getting at is to think about how you’d love someone if you (or they) were dying.
You would love and let go in every moment. You’d give your all but you would not cling. You’d get all the joy of love without making yourself dependent upon someone. You’d get the benefits of companionship but be grounded in yourself.
And great news – you are dying. And so is the person you love. Wonderful! So, you don’t have to act like you’re dying – you really are.
Live like it. Love like it.
That’s how you walk the middle way of love.
Now I have a hunch (based on several personal catastrophes). That this is MUCH easier said than done. In fact, it’s much easier to head to your local dollar general, fall madly in love, enter into a torrid love affair, split up, despair for a couple months, live as a monk, then start writing overly personal essays on the internet.
But I have faith in you – to be a little wiser than me. And to do as I say, not as I did.
What do you think about sex, love, and happiness? Please do share with me…
Your happiness experimenter,