- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2011

As Valentine's Day rolls around, I find myself contemplating romantic love and its place in the galaxy of love relationships.

When compared with other love relationships — that of a parent for a child, a sister for her sister, grandparents for their grandchildren, aunts and uncles for their nieces and nephews, even lifelong friends who walk so many miles with us — where does romantic love rank? Is it the sun? The moon? Or just one of the stars?

I ask because romantic love always seems to trump other loves, especially when people are consumed by the white-hot feelings of infatuation. Science tells us that these intense feelings are very real and very powerful, but they are also very temporary, dissipating, almost like clockwork, after about 18 months.

Many, if not most, couples are shocked when they realize “the thrill is gone,” and may even doubt that love can be real in any relationship.

So what is love anyway?

I spoke recently with Stephen G. Post, a longtime president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, an organization started by the John Templeton Foundation to fund and track worldwide research on love.

Mr. Post indeed has a definition of love, which is: “When the happiness and security of another person means as much to me, or more than, my own happiness and security, I love that person.”

Thus, a couple caught up in romantic feelings can experience that kind of love, especially when they dream of all the wonderful things they can do together in their lives.

But this definition also applies to the weary husband who comes home and immediately checks on his child in the crib, or the wife who spends time carefully preparing a favorite meal for her family. It is the motivation for someone to battle a snowstorm to visit a dear friend in the hospital, or for a teacher to take extra time with a student, or for a doctor to personally call a patient to deliver a diagnosis and discuss his or her care.

True love means that we treat each other with affirmation, respect and care. It’s when we know that other people “don’t revolve around me, and that my relationship with them is not based simply on whether I find them useful,” said Mr. Post, who is also a professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York.

Love is associated with loyalty because “love without loyalty, at some level, isn’t really love,” said Mr. Post. Love is also present when one’s focus shifts away from “me, myself and I” to a viewpoint that allows us to see “the beauty and mystery and awe and infinite worth in other people.”

Mr. Post, who is known for his 2007 book with Jill Neimark, “Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Research That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life,” has a new book coming out.

His new tome, “The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times,” again delves into the unexpected and amazing consequences of love and service, and finds that intentionally helping others can heal our own troubles.

Mr. Post and his family recently went through their own hard times after he lost a job amid the recession and uprooted his family for a job far away. But instead of hunkering down or withdrawing, he and his family embraced the change and its opportunities to help others. “The experience taught me that bonds of affection, good neighbors and, ultimately, love itself are the most essential things in a happy life.”

Mr. Post believes that doing compassionate, loving kindnesses for others is intended to be a way of life and not just a sweet but occasional act, such as getting someone a Valentine's Day card.

“Something about moving beyond self and looking toward others brings happiness,” he says. “When we stop expecting people to do things for us, and stumble on the happiness of doing things for other people, we can’t help but realize that whatever happens, we can handle it.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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