Who better than a cardiologist to unpack the many dimensions of love, the emotion that has long been depicted as emanating from the heart?
A comprehensive, multifaceted exploration into the nature of love is precisely what Dr. Armin A. Zadeh, who is both a cardiologist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, offers in his new book entitled The Forgotten Art of Love: What Love Means and Why It Matters. We hope you’ll enjoy this short interview with him about the book.
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Why does a cardiologist write a book on the art of love?
Why wouldn’t everyone write about love? Most would agree that love is the central force of life and critical for our happiness and wellbeing. Curiously, there is also a lot of confusion about what love is and how we can keep it in our lives, which I have always found fascinating.
In relation to my role as a cardiologist, caring and loving are closely related. Nurses or physicians heal through their genuine concern for their patients. Love in the general, nonromantic sense is very much at work in the process of healthcare, as in any other type of care.
Medicine itself is not considered a science but an art. To understand somebody’s pain, we need to not only have knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, physiology, psychology, but also of philosophy and spirituality.
To understand love, a similar, multi-faceted approach is necessary. The intention of this book is to look at love from a number of different angles as opposed to solely from a view of psychology, religion, or neuroanatomy, and to look more deeply into how and why love is so important to our lives.
Do you think a cardiologist is particularly well suited to explore the phenomenon of love?
To some extent yes. Unlike any other part of our bodies, our hearts are not only central to our existence, they are also linked to our perception of emotions, integrity, and some may even say to our soul. Heart disease affects more than our physical bodies, it impacts every aspect of our existence.
Conversely, we know now that extreme sadness or stress, such as after an unexpected loss of a loved one, can lead to heart failure. The body and mind connection is very much at play with heart disease.
Why do you consider love an art?
Love is more just a feeling. It requires skill and devotion — just like an art. In his 1956 book The Art of Loving, Fromm identified a common mistake in confusing the intense feelings at the beginning of romantic relationships (falling in love) with actual love. Such confusion has fundamental implications, not only for our understanding of love, but also for our relationships.
Are you saying that we are not actually loving when we fall in love?
Our terminology is indeed part of the confusion. Recent science allows to clearly differentiate between the early “falling-in-love” phase in relationships compared to the long-term “in love” period by detecting distinct activities in our blood and brain. The “falling-in-love” phase invariably ends. If we equate this phase with actual love, we must conclude that love is transient. We know that this is not the case.
During the “falling-in-love” phase we are “in love” largely passively, lifted by a number of powerful hormones. Long-term love, on the other hand, critically depends in our active involvement. That’s why it often fails. The “falling-in-love” phase may be (but may not be) part of a romantic relationship. Distinguishing “falling-in-love” from lasting love is an important distinction for understanding the dynamics in a relationship.
What are the implications of viewing love as an art?
The main implication is that we can learn and master the theory and practice of love — we can have love in our lives if we really want to. It is an empowering and beautiful concept. At the same time, it means love is not as some people like to see it, that is, a feeling which comes over us and stays “if it is meant to be.” Love needs our constant focus and attention if it is to stay with us.
Love as an acquired skill?
Well, like with almost everything else, there is a component of love that we were born with and a component we acquire. Indeed, research has revealed that the acquired portion is much greater than the genetic one. We learn to love from our parents and our environment. Our upbringing is critically important in this context because it not only shapes our concept of love, it also shapes our concept of ourselves, which hugely influences our capacity to love.
Does this mean personal development is critical for love?
Yes, it does. It is difficult to maintain a focus and appreciation for love if we are constantly distracted by our own desires or needs. If our life revolves around our efforts to boost our image, it will leave little time to devote to others. Love requires self-effacement. Because many struggle in this regard, relationships are often difficult.
Why is hard for us to love some people and easy to love others?
It depends on whether we allow ourselves to see the beauty in others or to be distracted by their (inevitable) flaws. As a cardiologist, I hate to say it, but love is more about the mind than the heart. The way we look at people, whether we feel love or not for them, largely rests on our attitude towards them. If we are like Jesus, we can love and see the good in everybody. Most of us, however, are more inclined to see the imperfections in others, which precludes us from extending our love. Sadly, we also cause grief for ourselves with the latter viewpoint.
Is love the key to happiness?
Happiness results from our mind triggering the release of pleasing hormones in response to processing information about our state of living that it is congruent with our expectations. Awareness and appreciation of life, as well as the gratitude, are important aspects of happiness. Two people can have identical circumstances, e.g., the same living conditions, the same job, the same family situation, and yet, one person may be utterly dissatisfied with life, e.g., because his or her career and economic ambitions have not been fulfilled, and the other couldn’t be happier because he or she cherishes his and her fortune to have a family, friends, a house, and a job. A focus on love indeed leads to happiness.
You say love itself can be regarded as a religion — please explain.
The concept of love in my book is very much consistent with the principles of mainstream religions, e.g., a continuous focus and effort for the wellbeing of others. Love recognizes the value in all life — no exceptions. It teaches personal humility and respect for all beings. Importantly, it does so without the confinements of an institution, which, as history has taught us, invites corruption of the original ideas because of individuals’ drive for power and greed. While love cannot explain the purpose of life, it can provide guidance for purposeful living. With or without the structure of religion, love provides answers to a happy, fulfilled life.
You propose the idea that love should be taught in school. Tell us more about that, please?
Since love is arguably the single most important aspect in our lives, shouldn’t we place greater emphasis on making sure our children know everything that helps them to have and hold love in their lives? I have children in school and like many parents, I am amazed about the work and stress these kids have to endure to be competitive in today’s world. Much of the stuff they learn, however, will be of little relevance for their later life.
I cite some frightening statistics in my book on the increasing stress levels among our teenagers and, most sadly, climbing suicide rates. Children are very vulnerable during the teenage years and are in dire need for guidance and support. It does not help that this is a phase where they often feel less understood by their parents. I propose a “health class” in high school, which focuses on discussions about love — for attendance only (no grades)—where teenagers can explore concepts of love and their significance for our lives. If children understand that love is not just a feeling but an art they can learn, it would be very empowering to them.
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Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, is the author of The Forgotten Art of Love. He is a professor at Johns Hopkins University with doctoral degrees in medicine and philosophy as well as a master’s degree in public health. As a cardiologist and a scientist, Dr. Zadeh knows, from first-hand experience, about the close relationship between heart disease and the state of the mind.
Visit him online at www.theforgottenartoflove.com.