A great irony of human existence is that love, which is arguably the single most desired goal in life, is so poorly understood and so hard for us to master.
Given its importance, we might expect that enormous resources would be spent on understanding how to attain love. For many human endeavors, there is extensive literature explaining how to achieve mastery, and institutions that specialize in understanding and teaching those skills. For love, there is no preparation or formal training. We are expected to learn from our families and by experience.
The fading influence of religion and the growing commercialization of love may increasingly confuse us in our quest for a happy and fulfilled life. The strong focus on academic and financial success in Western societies has led to a neglect of personal growth. This is a particularly acute problem for adolescents and young adults.
Annual polls report that 45 percent of high school students felt “major” academic pressure in 2008, up from 19 percent in 2001. In a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association, teenagers reported stress levels that equaled or even exceeded those perceived by adults, with approximately one-third of teens exhibiting signs of depression. To cope with increased stress, teenagers turn more frequently to alcohol and drugs. Most sadly, suicide rates increased by almost one-quarter (!) between 1999 and 2014 in the United States, with the greatest increase among females seen in girls aged ten to fourteen.
Priorities and Obligations
As a society, we must reconsider our priorities and our obligations to our children. While the exact causes of the increase in depression and suicide rates are uncertain, it is intuitive that increasing pressure in school, societal expectations for physical attractiveness, economic concerns, and weaker emotional support structures are important factors.
Children learn skills and knowledge in school to prepare them to achieve what we define as success in life: history, sciences, mathematics, and languages. However, we are well aware that they will forget much of this information within a few years.
We also school our children to become “productive” members of our society, conforming to social norms for occupation and income. More than anything, however, our children would benefit from an education in love and personal development to prepare them for life.
We may see this task as the parents’ job, but how can parents teach it if they themselves struggle to understand love? We may see teaching love as a function of religious institutions, but religious education may come with constraints on a child’s independent thinking. In any case, religious training for children and adolescents is rapidly waning. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of young adults (aged 18–29) in the United States had no religious affiliation.
Yet the teen years are a notoriously vulnerable period for children. Hormonal changes increase susceptibility to depression, contributing to teenagers’ feeling of isolation.
Teaching About Love
At a time when children may feel not well understood by their parents, they might benefit from guidance on dealing with emotions and relationships. More than one hundred research studies have found a positive effect of religion or spirituality on adolescents’ mental health. Given the waning of religion in our society, there is an increasing void of emotional support for teenagers, leaving them vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. This void could be filled with education about love.
Education in the basic principles of love could help children and adolescents develop a more mature picture of love and avoid mistakes that may have long-term consequences, such as unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, or unhealthy relationships.
Importantly, learning about love would complement their physical and intellectual development, giving them confidence to deal with societal pressures and associated stress. Teaching our youth the fundamental principles of love would allow them to reflect on the nature of human existence, providing them essential guidance for their development.
Children who recognize the critical need to love themselves and also accept love — without the need for external validation — are better positioned to face life. Fostering children’s belief in their individuality and value may help them accept themselves for who they are, which may help them resist negative societal pressures and expectations.
By teaching children that each person’s value arises from being a unique individual with a capability to love, we could help them understand that academic achievement and appearance are irrelevant to a person’s worth. This realization could help children to enjoy their childhoods and find balance in their later lives.
Laying the Foundation
Growing into a loving person takes devotion, knowledge, and maturity, and it is a process that extends well beyond childhood. We can, however, lay the foundation in every child to find love and mature into a loving person.
We can teach children that love starts with awareness of our actions and thoughts; that love is innate in all of us, but we must protect it against competing, self-serving impulses; that love is not a stroke of fortune but something that is under their own control; that anyone can attain love if they devote effort and focus to it. This may be the single most important realization that we can give to our children. It gives them power to shape their lives.
Practically speaking, how could we educate children in love? We might consider initiating classes about the art of loving in seventh or eighth grade, with discussions of the philosophy of love and the teachings of thinkers, like Socrates, Confucius, and others. Classes could continue throughout high school, ending with contemporary thinking and discussions on love.
The key objectives for these classes would be to recognize the obsessive aspects of falling in love; the difference between infatuation and mature, lasting love, as well as between lust and love; and the principle that love can be learned by redirecting our mind’s focus from selfishness to genuine care for others. Classes might also explore the interconnection of human drives and their effect on our mental and emotional states.
High school and college classes could explore the philosophical, spiritual, biological, and psychological aspects of love in greater depth. All classes should give credit for attendance only and not burden students with additional academic assignments and pressure.
Keeping Up With A Rapidly Changing Society
Our education system, whose basic structure dates from the nineteenth century, has not kept up with the demands of today’s world or a rapidly changing society. Unfortunately, it will take many years to reform our education system to any significant degree. In the meantime, the fundamentals of love might be taught in health studies classes, along with topics in biology and sexuality. But a better option would be an entirely new curriculum focusing on personal development.
As a society, we should decide what is truly relevant for the education of our children. Given the evidence of increasing stress, depression, and suicide rates among teenagers, it is time to pause and rethink our priorities. Among these priorities must be to allow our children to explore their enormous capacity for love.
©2017 by Armin A. Zadeh. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
The Forgotten Art of Love: What Love Means and Why It Matters
by Armin A. Zadeh MD PhD
This unique and wide-ranging book looks at love’s crucial role in every aspect of human existence, exploring what love has to do with sex, spirituality, society, and the meaning of life; different kinds of love (for our children, for our neighbors); and whether love is a matter of luck or an art that can be mastered. Dr. Zadeh provides a fascinating, empowering guide to enhancing relationships and happiness — concluding with a provocative vision for firmly anchoring love in our society.
About the Author
Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, MPH, is a cardiologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University. He has authored more than one hundred scientific articles and is an editor of scholarly books in medicine. The art of medicine requires insights from various disciplines, including biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and also philosophy. Drawing from his background and experience, Dr. Zadeh has used his skills in the analysis and synthesis of complex data to formulate new concepts and hypotheses on love and to develop a framework to understand — and master — love. Learn more at www.lovetheforgottenart.org/