In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Little Things Mean a Lot

Little things mean a lot as they are often more genuine

"Blow me a kiss from across the room...Touch my hair as you pass my chair, little things mean a lot." Kallen Kitty

   "The way to hold a husband is to keep him a little jealous; the way to lose him is to keep him a little more jealous." Henry Louis Mencken

Love is often described in terms of grand deeds, such as moving mountains. Love can indeed induce such deeds, but usually it is the little things that mean a lot more in love.

I am not arguing that grand events, such as sexual betrayal, the death of a child, or your partner's great achievement, have no influence upon our lives or romantic attitudes-they certainly do. But when we consider what maintains our love in the long term, little things are of greater significance.

These little things, be they gestures, actions, or words, are the many small things that we do every day and that naturally express our heart. They are not the result of calculations or intentions, but are rather spontaneous expressions of what we feel moved to do. Small manifestations of our love, such as blowing a kiss, touching our beloved's hair as we pass her, linking arms when crossing the street, and sending the warmth of a secret smile, are natural and spontaneous actions that genuinely reflect, more than any expensive present, the heart of the lover. As such gestures can be expressed throughout the day, they articulate the profound and continuous love of the lover.

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In light of the genuine and spontaneous nature of such little things, they are also crucial to an understanding the other's attitudes. This is true, for example, of online communication, where there are limited sources of information. Reading your partner's mind in such a communication consists of being aware of the little things that are expressed both in and between the lines. The kinds of words chosen, the speed of the response, the length and frequency of messages are all cues to understanding your partner's mind and heart.

As love is closely associated with happiness, it is no wonder that small gestures can elicit great happiness. Continued happiness does not come from occasional grand achievements, but from the little things that fill our daily lives. David Lykken suggests the following recipe for a happy life: "A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above your set point. Find the small things that you know give you a little high-a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends-and sprinkle your life with them. In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while."

It was found, for example, that although lottery winners were elated upon winning the lottery, they subsequently derived less pleasure than other people from a variety of ordinary little events and they were no happier than other people. Lottery winners experience  a rush of euphoria, after which all other events in their life appear insignificant. After winning 10 million dollars, you are less likely to experience a high level of satisfaction from little things such as your child's good grades, or from the fact that the tree in your garden has yielded more fruit than usual.

In the same vein, when love is expressed in small but frequent doses, it may indicate a more profound and continuous love and hence have an ongoing, persistent impact. Indeed, one reported difficulty in long-distance relationships, such as commuter marriages, is that couples miss daily discussions about "trivial" matters with their spouses-the sharing of little things.

In fact, love and happiness can often be destroyed by continuous small but negative gestures, actions, or words. As Ernest Dimnet noted: "The happiness of most people we know is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things." When little things are continuous, they are associated with a stable characteristic of the person-and in the case of love, then these small and constant gestures are perceived to indicate, and rightly so, a profound genuine love.

When little things are not continuous, their great emotional meaning stems from the perception that the situation could so easily have been different. Accordingly, "almost situations" or "near misses" have intense emotional effects. If we happen to hold number 55555 in a lottery and learn that the winning number is 55554, this near-success generates more sadness than if the winning number had been nowhere near our own. The American basketball star, Magic Johnson, who was infected with the AIDS virus, noted that it is particularly distressful for him to accept the disease since "I could have easily avoided being infected at all. All I had to do was wear condoms."

The great intensity of envy also involves the belief that things might have been different. Envy is a kind of "neighborhood" emotion that focuses on people perceived to be immediately above us, since they occupy the next rungs that we will have to climb on fortune's ladder. These are the people we are most likely to be compared with or whose accomplishments are most likely to demean our own. The feeling of "I might have been in her place" is dominant here and the smaller the difference between us, the more we perceive it as indicating that we could easily have been in their place, which makes the situation seem unfair and undeserved. When there is a great difference, we cannot conceive of ourselves as being similar to the fortunate person, so we find it easier to accept the given situation; consequently, we attach little emotional significance to the good fortune of those whose situation seems very different to ours.

This also occurs in romantic love, so that when romantic separation occurs because of external circumstances that have little to do with love, the frustration and sadness is greater, as the situation is that of unfinished business and the better alternative is perceived to have been possible and even likely. However, if (in the words of Carole King) "something inside has died" and there is nothing we can do to change it, it is typically of lesser emotional significance.

Small doses of positive illusions are valuable for long-term love (and happiness). It is evident that large doses of illusions disrupt people's life as reality always reminds them of how wrong they are. Although love is not blind, it is beneficial for its sight to be a little bit blurred-rounding off some of the sharper corners and seeing the other through rose-colored glasses. Long-term love involves many small positive illusions that enable people to perceive their partners in a more positive manner.

To sum up, since grand events and actions are intermittent or occasional, they cannot be perceived to express the profound nature of the lover. Continuous little things typically express this and accordingly they carry a great deal of meaning. Moreover, when the difference between our situation and the desired one is small, it easier for us to perceive the desired situation as both possible and appropriate for us and this increases our sadness about missing it. Little things mean a lot not because they are little, but because they  are perceived to confirm significant states of affairs.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, you need not buy me diamonds every week; a cheap necklace and a greeting card will suffice. However, do remember that I used to get diamonds from my previous lover."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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