Excellence Reporter: Dr. Zak, what is the meaning of life?
Paul J. Zak: Love is the meaning of life. Full stop.
Love is the highest aspiration, the most valued emotion, and the one that hurts us to the core when it is taken away.
“But,” you must be thinking, “this isn’t new.” Nearly every love song on the radio tells us we should be living for love. Many religious and philosophical traditions say the same.
What is new is the science.
My lab was the first to show that the neurochemical of love, oxytocin, is synthesized in the brain when we are shown a kindness by a stranger. In a dozen years of research, we have shown that nearly any positive social interaction causes the brain to make oxytocin and oxytocin, in turn, motivates us to treat others with care and compassion. In short, the “love molecule” oxytocin is quietly signaling who we should care about.
All four types of love identified by the Greek philosophers seem to stimulate the brain to make oxytocin. These are: romantic love (eros), parent-child love (storge), friendship (philia), and love for God or some transcendent ideal (agape). Demonstrating tangible care for others is how we express of love. This is precisely what oxytocin causes us to do: to reach out and connect to those around us.
My research has two really exciting take-aways. First, because oxytocin is active in evolutionary old parts of the brain, human beings appear to be designed to constantly find opportunities to love others. Love is a deep part of our human nature. By embracing this nature we are true to ourselves and are more fulfilled in our lives.
Second, the more one’s brain makes oxytocin, the more we are predisposed to make it. In other words, the more we love others, the more easily we love. And when we love others, their brains produce oxytocin and they show love in return. You have got to give love to get it, and our brains make this easier to do as we mature.
My years of research and especially my efforts to apply my findings to create a more compassionate world have earned me the nickname Dr. Love. If you’ll allow Dr. Love to offer you some advice, here it is: tell one person today that you love them. This could be a friend, parent, child, work colleague, teacher, or neighbor. If “love” is too scary, then substitute “appreciate.” Do this for one new person a week and you’ll be stimulating their brains to make oxytocin and creating a more loving world. That could just add meaning to your life.
~Paul J. Zak, PhD is a scientist, prolific author, and public speaker. He is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Zak also serves as Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. He is credited with the first published use of the term “neuroeconomics” and has been a vanguard in this new discipline.
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