If love is going wrong everything else seems wrong, too, doesn’t it?
Before you answer, I’m not talking about romantic love here. I'm not suggesting it’s the be-all, end-all of happiness as popular culture would lead us to believe. It’s more than possible to have a great, rich life without romantic love. Let me say that again: It’s more than possible to have a great, rich life without romantic love.
Two decades as a psychologist have taught me that life actually offers us three great loves. These three big loves are our best hope for creating a fulfilling and meaningful life, inside and out.
Pursuing these three loves creates a framework through which you will find fulfillment, purpose, and joy. The three loves I'm talking about are love of self, love of purpose, and love of others.
You see, love isn’t this uncontrollable, random mystery. Love—indeed, all emotion—has its own logic; it just isn’t the linear logic our intellect employs. Love also has methods—ways to be, ways to live.
I’ve learned that when we clear away the distractions, it’s clear that our life’s journey is ultimately an epic treasure hunt for these three loves of our lives. They encompass what we seek, who we want to be, and how we want to feel. Life is a process of developing the skills, wisdom, and awareness to discover and revel in these loves. At the end of our time on earth, it’s unlikely anything will matter to any of us but these three things. So, why waste time looking elsewhere for fulfillment? You are the source of each of the big three loves. Let them be your compass every day of your life.
1. Love of self.
Self-love, or self-compassion, is not narcissistic. But it seems to be the hardest love to nurture. It’s easier to focus on someone else—particularly romantically—and to pin your hopes of happiness on them. But at some point you realize that nobody can make you feel good about yourself or your life in a meaningful way except you.
Self-compassion means affording yourself the same basic kindness that you extend to others. By offering yourself some compassion when you make a mistake, you can recover faster from suffering, learn from the experience, more quickly regroup, and gather the energy to forge ahead. Holding a grudge, especially against yourself, shuts down your energy and means you have to fight much harder to recover from a negative experience than if you were to give yourself some understanding and encouragement.
Self-compassion means recognizing we’re all in it—in life, love, and suffering—together. All beings are united in life, love, failure, and triumph. You’re not to be singled out and judged more harshly—not even by yourself. Every one of us is unique and equally worthy of compassion.
At the deepest level, self-compassion involves forgiving ourselves for old patterns and questioning old beliefs and rigid thinking that leads us into self-defeating behaviors. It involves caring about ourselves enough to say, "It's time to give myself something better."
Ultimately, self-compassion or self-love springs from self-awareness. Knowing ourselves better means knowing how to take responsibility for our feelings and actions, how to stay with our values, and how to meet our own emotional needs.
2. Love of purpose.
This is more commonly referred to as flow. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as being in your zone of genius, or a peak experience—when you’re absolutely one with what you’re doing, living your bliss, absorbed in your passions. Flow isn’t just a state where your joy and skillfulness shine; it’s even more than that. Your sources of flow, be they art, sports, work, or any other pursuits that light you up, can be life-sustaining in difficult times.
Flow can be the catharsis you turn to for finding meaning and strength through good times and difficult times alike. Returning to pursuits that provide you with peak experiences of flow throughout life keeps your energy and creativity fresh, flexible, and alive in you, opening possibilities for further adventures and joys.
Where do you experience the great love that is flow? Are you still in search of it?
Struggling to find passion in work or other pursuits is common. I always reassure therapy patients that discovering your passions and vocation is an ongoing part of life; it’s not something many people just know. Even those who are sure of their calling early in life often change career paths several times as they grow and mature as human beings.
The passions of your childhood may stay with you all your life, but they may also branch into other things or just fall away, becoming redundant as you learn more about yourself, your values, and the way the world works. Ask yourself what you loved most as a child—are there clues to forgotten passions there? What lit you up inside?
Keep your heart open to discovering, to stumbling upon a sudden ignition of excitement and desire as you move through the world. When you find flow, treasure it—it will guide you toward greater meaning, purpose, and joy.
3. Love of others.
Our third great love is the love of others—spiritual beings, animals, and your family and friends. Relationships are inevitably going to challenge us because we don’t control all aspects of them. They involve others, which means there's an element of risk, there is uncertainty, and there is fear.
The first step in creating mindful relationships is to know ourselves, but we must also be able to hear others—the yearnings behind their words and behavior. Mindful awareness and the ability to self-soothe will allow us to listen to others with an open heart and facilitate deeper connection.
In disagreements, instead of retreating into ourselves, the openhearted approach allows us to maintain perspective. It's not always about us. Mindfulness is the open door through which love flows between two people.
In my experience, when these three loves are discovered and nurtured—when you focus on them—your life will feel complete. Prioritize yourself, your relationships, and your flow to create a full, rich life of emotional freedom, deep connection, and peak experiences. Let these loves be your compass in your inner landscape, and I promise you won’t ever stray far from your most fulfilling path.
Want more insight into your relationships? Find out the things you should always be selfish about in your partnerships and the questions that could keep your marriage from ending.