Care + Attention = Love
For the past 75 years, The Study of Adult Development, run out of Harvard, has been tracking the physical and emotional well-being of over 700 men who grew up in Boston in the 1930's and 1940's. It is one of the longest and most comprehensive longitudinal studies of its kind, closely following subjects from their late teens and early twenties all the way into their eighties and nineties.
Many of the findings are what you’d expect: don’t drink too much; don’t smoke; exercise often; eat a nutritious diet; maintain a healthy body weight; keep on learning. But according to George Vaillant, a psychiatrist and clinical therapist who directed the study for over three decades, the most important component to a good and long life is love.
“The 75 years and 20 million dollars spent on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion,” Vaillant writes. “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
The words “relationship” and “love” generally bring to mind a bond between two people. But perhaps that is too narrow. Can’t you also be in a loving relationship with a pursuit, with a community, or even with the natural world? Whatever it is you love, so long as the feeling is genuine, you’ll be better off for it.
And yet love — whether it’s for a person, community, or activity — isn’t easy. It needs to be cultivated. It is an ongoing practice.
Unfortunately, our 24–7, hyper-connected, always-on, consumerist society can make love challenging to nurture. Far too often, the current ethos crowds love out altogether. That’s because love requires care and attention. Distraction, busyness, and incessant yearning are, in many ways, the antitheses to love.
Care means showing a genuine interest and concern for someone or something. The kind of care that is required for love is not fleeting — it’s not constantly drawn to the next best thing, the newest bright and shiny object. It is steadfast and unwavering. If you become enthralled with gardening for a month, regularly tending to your plants, they’ll begin to grow. But if after that initial period of excitement you become less interested, only watering your plants when you don’t have anything better to do, your plants will wither away and die. The care required for love to blossom and thrive is much the same.
Attention is a close cousin to care. It’s about being fully present where you are. Not where you want to be. Not where you think you need to be. But where you are. When you truly attend to something the delineation between you and it — subject and object — often disintegrates in favor of a sensation of oneness. You become the art you are making. You become the forest you are walking through. You become one with your lover. The philosopher George Leonard wrote that these bonds are sacred spaces “where God lives.” Perhaps these bonds are where love lives too. Who knows? Maybe God and love are actually the same thing.
If what love is seems a bit esoteric, what love is not is relatively straightforward.
Love is not some kind of “hack” or quick fix. Love is not the “like” button on Facebook or Twitter, or the number of connections you have on LinkedIn. It’s not constantly interrupting whatever it is you are doing or whomever it is you are with to check your phone. It’s not getting promoted or closing a big deal or even winning a gold medal
Love is losing yourself in the process of caring about and showing undivided attention to someone or something, through ups and downs. It’s as simple and as hard as that. And if there’s anything worth going against the grain for, it’s love.
Coaching Corner: Choosing the Difficult Path
The beauty of any endurance sport is that it comes down to you alone in your head making a choice. Do you push through the pain and doubt, or do you give in to that ever growing inner-voice that you should stop, or at the very least slow down to make the pain go away?
With the runners I coach, we call this choosing the difficult path. Slowing down is an out. Pushing onwards, even if you fail to reach your goal, is a habit that can be ingrained.
In life, we can hide when we are faced with this decision, yet in running, it's right there for everyone to see.
Maddie Brown entered college as someone who wasn't even walk-on standard worthy, running around 5:45 for a mile. Through a lot of work, she had worked her way to where she could now run faster than that pace for over 6 miles consecutively.
But in the last race of her collegiate career, in attempting to score points for the team for the first time outdoors, things weren't looking good. It was 85 degrees and the sun baking the track. No one looked good. Halfway through the women's 5k, Maddie Brown was in 10th place, 60 meters behind 3rd place, and 20 meters behind the final scoring place (8th). She was going in the wrong direction.
But then she made a decision. With just over a mile to go, Maddie snapped out of it. She focused her gaze ahead and began to inch back towards the pack. She caught the pack clustered around the final scoring positions. But she didn't stop. She pressed onwards, sites set on each individual ahead. Gradually over the final laps, she pulled herself from 6th to 5th to 4th. And over the final stretch kicked her way into medal position, helping clinch the women's team championship.
When I asked her afterwards what went through her mind, she replied "Get your shit together...Stop feeling sorry for yourself...This is your last race...Your team is counting on you."
And with that one decision, on that one day, Maddie found out what she was capable of. Maddie followed the difficult path.
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