In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Can Romantic Love Be Calm and Dynamic?

The Power of Romantic Calmness

“Power is so characteristically calm, that calmness in itself has the aspect of strength.” Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

“I want to live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory. But don't ever think you can tie me down; I'm going to stay footloose and fancy free.” Faron Young

Emotions are typically associated with great dynamic excitement; conversely, calmness is usually regarded as passive and unemotional. However, I claim that at the basis of profound love there is calm, dynamic excitement. Is such a combination possible?

What is calmness?

“The kind of energy I attract is very calm.” Julia Roberts

Calmness is an overall feeling in which agitation is absent. When “calmness” is used in reference to the weather, it indicates a situation that lacks storms, high winds, or rough activity of water. My central claim is that whereas calmness is free of negative elements, such as agitation, turmoil, nervousness, and disturbance or distress, it is does not necessarily mean being inactive or lacking positive activities or positive excitement. Calmness indeed implies the absence of violent or confrontational activity, but not the absence of profound, positive activities that are constitutive of the agent’s flourishing. Precisely because profound calmness is associated with internal power and strength, it may cause negative reactions in the agent’s rival. Hence, there is much truth in Oscar Wilde’s claim that “Nothing is so aggravating than calmness.”

Calm-energy experiences

“French is a language that makes those who speak it both calm and dynamic.” Bernard Pivot

“Stay calm and aggressive.” Gabrielle Reece

In analyzing typical characteristics of emotions and moods, two basic continuums of the feeling dimension—the arousal continuum and the pleasantness continuum—are quite relevant. Robert Thayer (1996) suggests dividing the arousal continuum into two types: one that ranges from energy to tiredness and one from tense to calm. Hence, we have four basic moods states: calm-energy, calm-tiredness, tense-energy, and tense-tiredness. Each of these states can be associated with a certain state on the pleasantness continuum. Thus, Thayer considers the state of calm-energy to be the most pleasant state, whereas tense-tiredness is the most unpleasant one.

Thayer indicates that many people fail to distinguish between calm-energy and tense-energy since they believe that whenever they are energetic, there is a certain degree of tension in their situation. Thayer claims that the idea of calm-energy is foreign to many Westerners, but not to people from other cultures. He provides the following citation from the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki: “Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity. Real calmness should be found in the activity itself. It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, but calmness in activity is true calmness” (Suzuki 1970: 46).

Calmness and intrinsic activities

“There's a lot more power in calm than in vituperation.” Dennis Prager

We are seeking a dynamic activity that is associated with calmness, rather than with tension. Aristotle aptly characterized such pursuits as profound intrinsic activities, which are constitutive of human flourishing. An extrinsically valuable activity is a means to an external goal; its value lies in achieving that goal. This goal-oriented activity is always incomplete: As long as the external goal has not been achieved, the activity is incomplete, and the moment the goal has been achieved, the activity is over. The major criterion for evaluating such activities is efficiency—that is, the ratio of benefits to costs. Time is one of the resources we try to save when engaging in extrinsically valuable activities. Examples of such activities are building a house, paying bills, cleaning the house, and attending job interviews. We do not value these activities in themselves—in fact, we may even resent performing them, as they are painful and costly. Accordingly, these activities are associated with tension. We nevertheless engage in such activities when the external goal is perceived to be beneficial.

In an intrinsically valuable activity, our interest is focused upon the activity itself, not on its results. Although such an activity entails results, it is not performed in order to achieve them; rather, its value lies in the activity itself. Hence, we are not under any pressure to finish it as quickly as possible and can enjoy the process. Listening to music is an example of an intrinsically valuable activity: we listen to music because we value doing so and not because of a certain external goal. Intrinsic activities are basically calm, as there is no external pressure to finish the activity as soon as possible and the agent typically enjoys or satisfies with the activity. In light of this nature, the agent is ready to participate in such ongoing activities for a long time. Being an intrinsic activity, that is, doing the activity for its own sake, is not sufficient for being calm; we should also include another criterion: being profound.

Profound and superficial activities

“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.” Queen Victoria

“The British have a remarkable talent for keeping calm, even when there is no crisis.” Franklin P. Jones

In characterizing an intrinsically valuable activity, two main criteria may be used: (a) the agent’s attitude is that of considering the activity to be valuable for its own sake; (b) the activity involves optimal functioning using and developing the agents’ essential capacities in a systematic manner over a sustained period of time and hence contributing to the agents' flourishing. The first criterion is subjective, as it refers to the subject’s attitude; the second criterion is more objective, as it refers to the nature of the given activity in relation to the agent’s flourishing. A profound intrinsically valuable activity is one that fulfills both criteria. A superficial intrinsic activity is one that fulfills the subjective criterion only. Since it lacks the objective criterion of involving optimal functioning, it can be tense and harmful, especially when it is excessive.

A distinction can be drawn between superficial romantic pleasure (such as in sex) that merely fulfills the subjective criterion, and profound romantic satisfaction (such as in profound love) that fulfills the objective criterion as well. Superficial pleasure is an immediately rewarding, relatively short-lived experience requiring few or no profound human capacities. Profound satisfaction involves optimal functioning, using and developing the agent’s essential capacities and attitudes. Whereas profound intrinsic activities are constitutive of human flourishing, superficial intrinsic activities can easily become addictive. Being in a calm dynamic activity requires then that the activity will have its own intrinsic value and will be profound in the sense of essentially connected to human flourishing .

Calmness and human flourishing

“The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.” James Allen

Aristotle distinguishes between hedonia, which expresses the feeling aspect of happiness, and eudaimonia, which expresses the more general notion of human flourishing. This is the distinction between feeling good and functioning well. Whereas eudaimonia refers to the quality of life as a whole, and especially to an individual's optimal and virtuous functioning in life, hedonia refers merely to having good feelings, getting what you want, or enjoying something you are doing. Hedonia is typically a feature of eudaimonia. Nevertheless, although feeling good about life and functioning in life are related, they are distinct phenomena (Keyes & Annas, 2009). Whereas hedonia refers merely to a present subjective state, eudaimonia connects the present with the past and the future in an individual's optimal and virtuous activities, which are expressions of the individual's unique nature and capacities.

Aristotle takes intrinsic activities to be the most important constituent in human flourishing (eudaimonia), though he also acknowledges the importance of extrinsic activities in such flourishing. Human flourishing is not a temporary state of superficial pleasure; it refers to a longer period involving the fulfillment of the human natural capacities. Calmness cannot be achieved by limiting our perspective to the momentary present, as present calmness is also related to our functioning in the future. Human calmness involves profound satisfaction rather than fleeting pleasure. Hence, profound intrinsic activities are a prime example of calm-energy experiences.

Calmness in romantic activities

“Romance is tempestuous. Love is calm.” Mason Cooley

“I definitely need to date someone who is calm.” Freida Pinto

I now turn to apply the above considerations to the romantic realm. The experience of profound love consists of a significant proportion of meaningful intrinsic activities that promote the flourishing of each lover as well as their togetherness. Meaningful intrinsic activities are crucial for long-term profound love as the satisfaction that arises from performing these activities is not transient—it involves the optimal development and functioning of the lovers. Profound love does not stem from subordinating one’s activities to those of the beloved, but from considering the activities for and with the beloved as compatible with one’s own profound intrinsic activities. The choice of such activities cannot be arbitrary, as they must be of benefit to and compatible with the agent’s personality and flourishing.

Profundity is often associated with complexity. To love someone profoundly involves a comprehensive attitude that recognizes the rich, meaningful and complex nature of the beloved. A superficial attitude toward someone is to perceive the person in a simplistic and partial manner, ignoring the rich meaningful characteristics of the person.

In this regard, a distinction can be made between romantic intensity and romantic profundity. Romantic intensity expresses the momentary value of intense passion, mainly that of sexual desire. Romantic profundity embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time along with life and romantic experiences that resonate in all dimensions, helping the individuals flourish and thrive. An essential element in romantic profundity is the shared and joint activities of the lovers over time. Such substantial activities have lasting impact on our lives and can also shape our personality. Superficial activities affect only the surface of our lives – they are more immediate in impact and limited in scope.

Superficial activities, such as casual sex, gossiping, and watching television, might be enjoyable even though they do not contribute much to our long-term flourishing, and can also be harmful in excess. On the other hand, profound love requires optimal functioning, tapping essential capacities in one’s flourishing. This is the difference between a fleeting pleasure and a lasting treasure. As long as the partners are flourishing and passion stays at least moderately intense, profound love can endure. Romantic profundity counteracts the loss of intensity that would otherwise occur with time.

When love is profound, romantic activities are calm and yet quite dynamic. The calmness stems from the trust in the loving relationship concerning not merely the present but future flourishing as well; the dynamic nature is due to the joint activities that the two lovers constantly share.

In our later years, calmness with the familiar is essential; when we are younger, the excitement generated by novelty is of greater importance (Mogilner, et al., 2011). Such calmness does not imply the lack of activities; it rather indicates reduction in extrinsic, incomplete activities concerned with the immediate future and an increase in intrinsic activities having their own value and meaning in the present as well as that putting the agent in an optimal situation for facing the future. Calmness is not necessarily being inactive; it is being active in a certain manner.

In light of these differences, there is little surprise that the common assumption that happiness declines with age has been found to be mistaken. Research indicates that older people are actually happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people are (Carstensen, 2009). One possible explanation is that when we realize that our years are numbered, we change our perspective and tend to focus on positive present experiences. Our emotional experiences are more likely to consist of calmness and less with excitement. Sonja Lyubomirsky (2013) summaries these findings by arguing that for most people, the best years are in the second half of life.

The above considerations may solve the dilemma of romantic stability which is expressed in people's wish to have both an exciting and stable romantic relationship. People like their romantic love to be exciting and dynamic. They do not want to be taken for granted, like an inanimate stable stone; they want to be fully alive and intensely excited. As Faron Young says in the above citation, "I want to live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory." Similarly, the motto of a chat room entitled “Married and Flirting,” is “Married Not Dead”; the chat room promises its members "to feel alive again." On the other hand, people also want their romantic relationships to be calm and stable while maintaining its initial high intense level.

At the basis of this dilemma is the issue of whether long-term stable romantic relationships can be exhilarating and dynamic, or whether such relationships are doomed to be dull and stagnant. In other words, must romantic love be short and unstable?

Answering this question should refer to the proposed distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity. As long as we consider romantic love to consist of merely, or even mainly, the intensity dimension, that is mostly expressed in sexual desire, romantic love cannot be both dynamic and calm. However, profound love can endure for a long time and still be dynamic and exciting since profound intrinsic activities, which are quite dynamic and exciting, are constitutive of such love.

Concluding remarks

“True love is not a strong, fiery, impetuous passion. It is, on the contrary, an element calm and deep. It looks beyond mere externals, and is attracted by qualities alone. It is wise and discriminating, and its devotion is real and abiding.” Ellen G. White

The presence of calm-energy romantic experiences indicates that a stable romantic relationship is not inevitably associated with dullness and lack of excitement. In enduring profound romantic relationships, stability is associated with dynamic and exciting activities. Actually, the only way in which romantic love can endure for a long time is for it to preserve its profound intrinsic activities that involve profound calmness and further enhance the flourishing of each lover.

References

Carstensen, L. L., (2009). A long bright future. New York: Broadway.

Keyes, C. L., & Annas, J. (2009). Feeling good and functioning well: Distinctive concepts in ancient philosophy and contemporary science. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 197–201.

Lyubomirsky, S., (2013). The myths of happiness. New York: Penguin.

Mogilner, C., Kamvar, S., D., & Aaker, J. (2011). The shifting meaning of happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 395-402.

Suzuki, S. (1970). Zen mind, Beginner’s mind. New York: Weatherhill.

Thayer, R. E. (1996). The origin of everyday moods. New York: Oxford University Press.

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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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