“You give me fever when you kiss me, Fever when you hold me tight,
Fever in the morning, Fever all through the night.” — Peggy Lee
Romantic love is usually associated with tempestuous excitement. While it can certainly be like this, I believe that in our current accelerated society, calmness is the new romantic excitement.
Forms of Romantic Love
“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
Emotions are often compared to storms and fire: They are unstable, intense states that signify passionate excitement and agitation. Emotions are generated when we perceive significant change or possible change in our situation (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000). They tend to magnify situations and make them seem urgent, which allows us to mobilize our resources.
This characterization also prevails in descriptions of romantic love. As Betsy Prioleau (2003: 14) argues, "Love goes brackish in still waters. It needs to be stirred up with obstruction and difficulty and spiked with surprise." Hence, "What's granted is not wanted." We think ideal love consists of constant excitement and uncompromising emotions, that love knows no varying degrees and never has to compromise.
The above characterizations are essentially true concerning a specific type of emotions—intense, focused emotions, which typically last for a brief period. Change cannot persist for long; the human system soon accepts the change as a normal, stable situation and adjusts.
But there are also enduring emotions, which can continue for a lifetime. An enduring emotion can permanently shape our attitudes and behavior. A flash of anger might last moments, but grief over the loss of a loved one resonates constantly, coloring our moods, demeanor, flourishing, and how we relate to time and space. A man's long-standing love for his spouse may not involve continuous feelings, but it influences his attitudes and behavior toward her and others.
Not all tempestuous emotions can turn into enduring emotions, but romantic love can. In this regard, we can distinguish between romantic intensity and profundity. Romantic intensity is a snapshot of a romantic experience at a given moment; it refers to the momentary level of passionate, often sexual, desire. It has a brief duration, but no significant development. Romantic profundity is an ongoing romantic experience featuring both frequent intensity and enduring experiences that develop and enhance the flourishing of each lover and their relationship. Such love is assessed mainly by the implementation of meaningful interactions, involving joint activities and shared emotional experiences. Time is positive and constitutive for romantic profundity, and destructive for romantic intensity.
Profound Calm Excitement
“The kind of energy I attract is very calm.” — Julia Roberts
We may say that excitement is not necessarily a brief passionate feeling involving solely romantic intensity; it can be part of an ongoing profound romantic relationship. If excitement includes the wish to learn more about someone and to be more involved with someone, we should assume that time can increase excitement. Profound, long-term excitement can also involve briefer states of intense desire. We can distinguish between superficial, tempestuous excitement and profound, calm excitement.
As the notion of calm excitement might initially appear to be an oxymoron, I will clarify: 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 waves. Calmness is free of negative elements such as agitation, turmoil, nervousness, disturbance, or distress; it does not necessarily mean being passive or lacking positive action or positive excitement. In fact, calmness is an essential element to our flourishing. Because profound calmness is associated with intrinsic strength, it is powerful and stabilizing.
In analyzing the typical characteristics of emotions and moods, two basic continuums of the feeling dimension—the arousal continuum and the pleasantness continuum—are relevant. Robert Thayer (1996) suggests dividing the arousal continuum into two types—one that ranges from energy to tiredness and the other from tense to calm. Hence, we have four basic moods states: calm-energy, calm-tiredness, tense-energy, and tense-tiredness. Each can be associated with a certain state on the continuum of pleasantness. Thus, Thayer considers the state of calm-energy to be the most pleasant state, and tense-tiredness 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 notes 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 (1970: 46):
“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.”
This kind of dynamic calmness can be found in profound intrinsic activities, which are constitutive of human flourishing. As such activities are exciting, we can speak about profound calm excitement.
Maturity and calm excitement
"It strikes me that we are 'behaving' (actually, we are not behaving) like teenagers; can’t we at least try to behave as if we were mature adults? I feel like I am twenty again." — A married woman to her married lover (both in their fifties)
Maturity seems to act counter to novelty and excitement; young people are considered more emotional than older people. Short-term romantic intensity is typically elicited by extrinsic novel change, while long-term profound love is based upon an intrinsic development of the familiar. At the center of the former is unruly excitement; at the center of the latter is calmness (peacefulness, serenity), which involves maturity (Mogilner, et al., 2011).
In light of these differences, the common assumption that "happiness declines with age" is found to be false. On the contrary, research indicates that older people are actually happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people. One possible explanation is that when we realize that our years are numbered, we change our perspective and tend to focus on positive current experiences. In these circumstances, our emotional experiences are more likely to consist of calmness. Sonja Lyubomirsky, in summarizing these findings, notes that for most people, the "best years" are in the second half of life (Lyubomirsky, 2013; see also Carstensen, 2009; Carstensen, et al., 2011).
It has been found that older individuals perceive their spouse as warm during both disagreements and collaborative tasks and report high marital satisfaction. Older married couples have fewer marital conflicts than younger counterparts, although they report that erotic bonds are less central in their lives. Companionate love, which is based upon friendship, appears to be the cardinal feature of their lives. Overall, intimate relationships in old age are harmonious and satisfying (Berscheid, 2010; Charles & Carstensen, 2009).
Calmness in Romantic Activities
“Romance is tempestuous. Love is calm.” — Mason Cooley
The experience of profound love consists of meaningful intrinsic activities, which develop the flourishing of each lover as well as their togetherness. 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 deeper characteristics of the person. Romantic profundity counteracts the loss of intensity that would otherwise occur with time. When love is profound, romantic activities can be calm and yet exciting. Romantic calmness is associated with the profound trust existing in the loving relationship; the excitement derives from the feeling of developing and getting the best out of oneself and one’s partner.
The above considerations may solve the dilemma people have when they want a romantic relationship that is both exciting and stable. People like their romantic love to be exciting; they want to feel fully alive and intensely excited. The motto of a chat room entitled “Married and Flirting” is “Married, Not Dead”—this chat room promises to enable its members "to feel alive again." But this kind of superficial excitement does not involve ongoing enthusiasm, approval, or an interest in knowing more about the other. In profound love, you may lose some of the superficial excitement, but gain a long-term calm excitement involving knowing and interacting with each other.
What Kind of Excitement Do You Choose?
In a restless society based upon speed and efficiency, we are flooded with superficial excitement. Slow and profound people often fall victim to the rapid pace; fast and superficial people have the edge. Social networks make connection between people faster and less profound, decreasing romantic profundity and increasing the problem of loneliness, which is not generated by lack of social connections, but by lack of meaningful, profound social connections.
Contemporary society offers us an abundance of superficial excitement, but too little profound excitement. The superficial road is more attractive and appears to offer more opportunities. Chasing after a brief tempestuous excitement, however, is often the problem and not the solution. When these experiences occur too often, they can become boring and disappointing.
I certainly do not deny the value of tempestuous, exciting experiences, which are often very enjoyable. I also do not deny that there is a trade-off between superficial excitement and romantic profundity; however, this is not a trade-off between intense excitement and the absence of excitement. Rather, our choice is between sporadic, brief states of superficial excitement and an ongoing experience of profound excitement.
As we live longer, and our society offers us an abundance of superficial exciting experiences, the value of profound calm excitement has increased considerably. To be happier these days, we do not need extra superficial exciting experiences. Instead, we need the ability to establish, maintain, and enhance profound calm excitement. In many circumstances, we should prefer profundity and recognize calmness as the new romantic excitement.