From Heartache to Happiness: 5 Daily Practices of Love that Lead to Well-Being

There are many forms of love from Eros the passionate love to Philia, the love we have for our family. Another type of love — Agape — is also tied to our well-being. Agape is the universal love we feel for each other and our world. When we send this form of love through kindness, gratitude or other forms of altruism, it not only helps others, it helps us.

We can actually get hardwired for happiness, as neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson (2013) explains. After we “do good” or even just “take in the good” our brains reward us with a natural high that is designed to incentivize us to do more good things. Dr. Hanson explains that our brain stem or “lizard brain” is hardwired to avoid harms, our subcortex or “mammalian brain” is the center of emotion and seeks to approach rewards and our cortex or “primate brain” is largely driven around social engagement. When all three brains are in the “green zone” we feel safe, satisfied and connected and this gives us a sense of peace and contentment can feel like a universal love. By contrast, when the these areas are chronically in the “red zone” we feel fear, frustration and heartache — or a sense of “inner homelessness” that can be linked to suicidal despair.

The good news is that we can train our brains to turn everyday good experiences into lasting happiness by practicing the art of Agape. Within our brains we have a salience network that tells us what is relevant and consequently shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions. When we are stressed, our salience network becomes a “Velcro for bad” — making all experiences go through filters of fear, dissatisfaction and rejection. Hanson argues that we can train our brains to go on “green alert” and be sensitized to the good. Here are five such practices of the expression of Agape love — when we stimulate the practices of this form of love, we strengthen it:

  1. Philanthropy: Money has an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people or causes. What are social or environmental issues you care about? Your donation to these causes matters and helps you feel connected to something larger than yourself. While hedonism may increase short-term pleasure, altruism creates longer-term satisfaction. 

  2. Volunteer: The helper effect is a phenomenon well-supported in science — when we help others, we also benefit.  In fact volunteering has about the same impact on your health as quitting smoking!

  3. Acts of Kindness: Today challenge yourself to be kinder than yesterday. For instance, you can text at least one person a day to let them know you are thinking about them. Acts of kindness are especially powerful when you know your kindness will not be traced back to you.

  4. Gratitude: Thankful people are happier, have stronger relationships, are more optimistic, exercise more and have fewer visits to physicians. Each morning spend five minutes answering these prompts: “today I am especially grateful for…” or “my life is better because…is in it.” When people do something nice for you, write handwritten thank you notes to let them know. 

  5. Awe: Notice the world with a beginners mind — like you’ve never seen it before — and take pleasure in the wonder of the grand and small details: the smell of your child’s hair, the endless stars above, the colors in a landscape.

While these practices are helpful in getting a responsively bias toward the fruits of Agape, your deliberate internalization of these positive experiences will sensitize your brain to be a “Velcro for good.” By following Dr. Hanson’s process you can feed your brain and strengthen the pathways to Agape:

STEP 1: Have a positive Agape experience like those listed above. Notice in foreground or background the good sensations, feelings or thoughts that emerge.

STEP 2: Enrich this positive experience by going deeper — focusing on the sensations in the body and encouraging the experience to be more intense. The goal here is to get the neurons of the positive experience firing strongly together because as neuropsychologists like to say “what fires together wires together” (meaning the neural pathway becomes like a super highway of neuronal transmission instead of a single lane dirt road).  Focus a few extra seconds on your enjoyment; challenge yourself to see how long you can make it last. 

STEP 3: Absorb this experience by imagining it settling in as a resource inside you — like golden dust soaking into your skin or like a jewel into your heart. 

The universal love of Agape is a powerful tool for well-being. Bringing together brain science and positive psychology, we have ample evidence that daily intentional practices of Agape can be just what we need to unlock the fullness of life.


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