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All You Need is Love, Seriously

love window rainbow

One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to rescue a worthwhile idea from a long-time association with kooky people.

Ideas that were once novel eventually become tiresome, then embarrassing, and end up embraced only by people on the fringes of mainstream culture. In 1967, young people could still speak without irony about uninhibited, indiscriminate love for all human beings. John Lennon believed catchy slogans could change the world, and his anthem “All You Need is Love” really resonated—the single went straight to number one and remained there for the rest of the summer.

But the feel-good energy of the love movement soon dissipated. By December 1969, when a gun-wielding concertgoer was stabbed to death by security in front of the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Free Concert, some people were beginning to feel embarrassed by the notion that all you need is love.

Every cultural explosion is naïve to some extent—in order to achieve any momentum, a movement needs to include a lot of supporters who aren’t thinking about it critically. But the ensuing backlash is usually overboard too. The naiveté associated with the movement is what’s remembered, and any valid or unresolved points are forgotten. (See: Kony 2012, Occupy Wall Street.)

Today, “All you need is love” is still a nice thought (and a great song) but it isn’t often seriously represented as a philosophy to live by, at least outside of the population’s remaining Hippie and New Age fringes.

Even though I write about human well-being, I try to stay far from vague concepts like energy centers, cosmic balance and spirit guides, and still write coherently about ideas that are often mentioned alongside them, like oneness, inner peace and the universe being conscious.

Some genuinely useful ideas are at risk of being dismissed because of their popularity among New Age quacks. I spent a fair bit of Making Things Clear reiterating that meditation is not a religious or mystical activity, despite its conflation with Eastern mystics and Western kooks. I’m sure many people have dismissed it solely because of that association.

One of these suspicious-by-association concepts is the idea that love is an effective response to nearly every problem. “All you need is love” is a bit glib, as are all slogans, but I don’t think it’s very far from the truth. Almost any situation can be improved with the clear-minded application of love. 

Love is practical

Even now, just typing the word “love” makes me a bit self-conscious. Outside of its use in describing romantic or family relationships, the word often comes off as naïve or sentimental.

But love is a very practical quality. It is useful and productive. Cultivating love in our interactions with others (and with ourselves) can help us cut through the distorting effects of aversion and self-indulgence, freeing us to make better decisions.

Love is all about creating more well-being with your actions. I gave one example of this in “How to Be a Good Stranger“. It’s a nearly-perfect technique for handling grating encounters with strangers, such as when you’re trapped behind a slowly-moving person on a sidewalk. The moment you notice you’re feeling ill will towards a stranger, decide that you will help this person if they need it. Whatever annoyance they’re creating for you, decide that if this person trips and falls, you’ll help them up. If they look lost, you’ll offer directions. If someone harasses them, you’ll step in.

The effect is amazing. You immediately lose interest in whatever ill will you had. Assuming the role of a secret guardian is much more fun and meaningful than the low-brow indulgence of quietly resenting a stranger for how they walk or park their car. This tiny intention to help leaves no room for ill will to accumulate and affect your mood. What would have been one of perhaps several ugly and divisive experiences that day will instead become a moment of genuine goodwill, which will improve your mood and your day. You feel like a better person, and you are.

But there’s an even simpler and more universal way to apply this idea. Whenever you have a dilemma, ask yourself: What is the loving thing to do here?

A co-worker is being really snarky and critical towards you. Your normal response might be to ask him what his fucking problem is, or worse, say nothing, and for the rest of the day imagine telling him off, even while you’re driving home, and again later when you’re trying to sleep.

But when you ask yourself what the loving thing to do is, suddenly you become more aware of his experience, and its relationship to his behavior. heartcrackedMaybe he’s not feeling like his opinion is valued, or he’s irritable from quitting smoking. You could politely ask what’s wrong, or maybe just quietly hope for him that his day gets better.

It works even when nobody else is involved. Imagine it’s a Saturday and you have a list of overdue errands, but you accidentally watched almost the whole first season of Narcos instead. It’s 4pm, the stores are closing soon, and you kind of hate yourself. What should you do?

Most of us would feel quite justified in saying “screw it” at that point, and resume the binge-watch, with the idea that we can get an early start the next day. You would feel a bit of relief at that decision, and also feel kind of bad, but either way, that choice is the end of the “problem-solving” process in this instance.

But if you instead asked yourself, “What’s the loving thing to do here?” it would become quite clear that you would feel far better if you’d just put on some pants and go get one or two things done, even if you feel sluggish right now. There’s simply more to be gained that way—it would improve both your Now and your Later.

Love makes solutions clearer

You might wonder how you know what the loving thing to do is. You won’t always, but once you frame the problem that way, it is surprisingly easy to come up with a productive, low-stress response that makes you (and others) better off.

Dilemmas almost always trigger some sort of fear or aversion, and so that’s the mode of thinking we first bring to our responses. We feel like we have to evade, ignore or destroy the problem. Identifying the loving response starts your problem-solving in a totally different place, putting the well-being of the people involved at the North on your compass, instead of feelings of relief or escape.

Your friend is late meeting up with you? What’s the loving thing to do?

You keep skipping piano practice? What’s the loving thing to do?

Too much suffering in the world? What’s the loving thing to do?

Sometimes the loving thing is going to be challenging or intimidating. It might mean having a difficult conversation instead of avoiding it. It might mean confronting someone about their bad behavior. It might mean apologizing, or deciding to let something go, or staying up late to finish something. But it will almost always create more well-being than an aversion-based response.


loving thing chart 523


There’s nothing cold or unloving about using love for practical things—unless it isn’t really love. It doesn’t work if you’re trying to fake it. If you’re not really concerned about the well-being of the people involved, even if it’s just you, then it’s not love. Comforting yourself with a chocolate cake after missing a workout isn’t self-love, it’s really the opposite.

Do I sound like a kook? Maybe, if you’re really cynical. Love isn’t something to indulge in, it’s a higher mode of operation, which human beings are only now learning how to use. It’s a beautiful, intuition-based capacity that always points us towards well-being. How lucky are we to have that?

But love is also quiet and delicate compared to our more reptilian motivations, so we have to stop and consciously ask ourselves what to do with it. Maybe it isn’t all we need, but if you know you need something and can’t figure out what, love is probably it.


Photos by Lisa H and David Goehring
Zoe September 21, 2015 at 2:21 am

What a nice post, thank you! I think I’ll go and do the loving thing and start my work for the day, instead of wasting time on social media and then feeling bad about it.

DiscoveredJoys September 21, 2015 at 3:04 am

An excellent post. I wonder if the word ‘love’ is expected to cover too many meanings nowadays – if so that could explain why using the word ‘love’ feels kooky.

Other languages often have single words which capture subtle emotions which English has no word for. Think of the German ‘Schadenfreude’ – delight in another person’s misfortune, or ‘Gemutlichkeit’ – a space or state of warmth, friendliness and good cheer. Or the Welsh ‘Cwtch’ – an affectionate cuddle or hug, but with overtones of a ‘safe place’ especially in childhood. Mind you, English sometimes has single words which don’t translate easily into other languages.

The point is that without a single clear word for a particular feeling we often find difficulty in summoning that feeling. ‘Love’ is perhaps too tired to do the work we want it to do. If we had a word for ‘Openhearted Goodwill Towards A Stranger’ we might feel it more often – but deliberately fabricating a word (‘Ogtas’?) does smack of cultishness. Does another language have a word we could adopt?

Burak September 21, 2015 at 6:45 am

Good point. Actually, you can put other words in English to summon different occasions where love can be used. But when you want to single out a phrase love is appropriate except that it is too tired as you pointed out.

Another point is love is mainly used for affairs of couples in English. In some languages, there are separate words for love of that kind and other kinds.

In my opinion though, as for the languages I interact with including English, I find compassion much more comprehensive to describe the attitude David directs our attention.

First of all, many forms of love as a feeling/emotion (regardless of the language used) have connotations of a kind of expectation from the loved ones/things. Compassion on the other hand, is a way of conscious realization of the need within you to lovingly help others be better version of themselves without any expectaion at all.

Furthermore, if I quote one of my favorite parts about compassion: “…compassion is extremely broad. Because of the compassion a person feels for his child, he may well feel a kindness towards all young and all living beings even… …whereas passionate love restricts its gaze to its beloved and sacrifices everything for it. Or else while elevating and praising its beloved, it denigrates others and in effect insults them and abuses their honour.”

So, to me, compassion is more brilliant, more extensive, and more elevated than love. And compassion is what I understand in this post’s intent. And yes, love is not strong enough to take the heavy meaning of compassion on its shoulders in any language. But that’s just my opinion, and sorry for too much linguistics that digress a bit from the main point :)

David Cain September 21, 2015 at 8:34 am

I guess a lot depends on how you think of the word. I tried to define it here as “the will to well-being” but we also use it in phrases like “love to hate.” I think the meaning is clear enough in this article though.

Trish Scott September 21, 2015 at 9:06 am

Words are tricky. I think that “love” like “god” can, and does, stand for just about anything. I try, often without success, to avoid both when writing. But taken in the context of this post, love works fine. Thanks.

Christine September 21, 2015 at 9:56 pm

At the risk of sounding like a kook myself, I can think of no purer love than that of a dog.

Whenever I run into the situation of being confronted by an angry co-worker or an upset person, I try to create an image in my mind of that person in the middle of their rant, but then outta nowhere comes a wild pack of puppies! As the person is knocked to the ground, the frown on their face turns into a smile. Laughter erupts through the person’s hands, which are covering their face trying to escape death by puppy kisses.

Puppies and the no-longer-angry-or-upset-person roll around together and all is right in that world. :)

Christine September 21, 2015 at 10:00 pm

All people need to do is ask themselves what Lassie would do in a situation.
If you replace “What would Jesus do?” or “What would Ghandi do?” with “What would Lassie do?”, you will know what to do.
Woof! Woof!

Celia Kozlowski September 25, 2015 at 5:29 am

I see “loving-kindness” used much in this sense. Less succinct than just “love” but maybe free of some of the other uses and abuses of “love”?

Katharine Di Cerbo September 21, 2015 at 3:17 am

Hi David,

I really appreciated this post, thank you.

I agree 100% that love can be very practical (in fact an essential tool in our lives), and there is nothing wrong with looking at it that way.

In particular I agree with your point about the potential for there to be an underlying loving nature in a difficult conversation (like directly confronting someone respectfully and with good intentions).

One thing I have difficulty with sometimes, in contrast, is letting things go, especially if they happen repeatedly. For example, when a friend behaves in a self-centered way multiple times in a row, I can empathize with why it’s happening, but it starts to make me want to protect myself and back away from the friendship. I have certain “triggers” that make it hard for me to be forgiving and loving.

Thanks again for the great post.

Suzie September 21, 2015 at 7:04 am

Interesting post, David. Katharine, as I was reading thru the post I had similar thoughts. I had a best friend for about 15 years but later in life began to see how critical and snarky she was towards me. I had a boyfriend around the same time (but only for 8 years) who was emotionally and mentally manipulative. Eventually I figured out that I had to do the most loving thing for myself and cut ties with them. With the best friend I just drifted away, not harsh words, just moved on. The boyfriend was a lot messier.
There are quite a few “spiritual” people who try very hard to practice love as an action and not a feeling. Mother Theresa and Gandhi come to mind.

David Cain September 21, 2015 at 8:38 am

Protecting yourself from someone else’s abuse sounds like a loving thing to me. I don’t mean here that we should be feeling affection for everyone–I don’t know how to do that either. Only that the well-being of the people involved (including yourself) might be the best criterion for decisionmaking. Sometimes than means removing a person from your life.

Vito Corleone September 21, 2015 at 6:00 am

Too bad I’m a gangster :(

David Cain September 21, 2015 at 8:39 am

This is why those movies always end badly. Irreconcilable conflict between love and criminality. I’m so sorry Vito.

Carla September 21, 2015 at 6:47 am

Proposing we follow the golden rule! How radical of you!

Anna September 21, 2015 at 7:15 am

Loved this article! Xx
Thanks also for the Konmari article. Just after reading it someone was talking about the book on popclogs so I searched and found the audiobook free. I’m coming up to 50 bin bags so far( I’m expecting 100 ish) we have seven barns full of stuff. I now have no clothes left but I just can’t believe I made do with so much stuff that wasn’t right and that I hated. It’s actually possible to get by on one pair of shoes and one pair of leather boots. And two or three outfits. I will get more but it’s taking me soooo long to find stuff I love. Xxx

David Cain September 21, 2015 at 8:42 am

Thanks Anna. Yeah it can be alarming how little of our stuff we actually love. My wardrobe is pretty sparse right now. But I can wear all of it, and rebuild it over time.

kiwano September 21, 2015 at 8:20 am

This may not be quite as much the case for the average camper, but among hunters, a quick, clean kill is generally regarded as an act of love for the animal being taken. If the wild animal is attacking because it’s injured and unable to run away then it’s almost certainly facing the prospect of being killed by some other predator which will think nothing of tearing it limb from limb before it’s quite dead yet (never mind the prolonged agony of the injury until then).

The bulk of the other reasons people get attacked by wild animals could also be helped by the application of love, but as prevention. You know, basics like respecting an animal’s territory, not harassing an animal, and not teaching an animal that humans are a source of food, unless you intend to keep feeding it.

Hirondelle September 21, 2015 at 8:57 am

How serendipitous (again :) !!!!

I grew up in a cynical environement…a cynical country actually…as awfull as it sounds…so I (still) work to shake it off…sometimes it works sometimes I still struggle…baby steps.
I want to share with all of you this amazing post http://www.jackkornfield.com/sacred-perception/
Beautifully said, David. Thank you

Kim September 21, 2015 at 9:22 am

I love loving. Thank you, David.

Laura Beth September 21, 2015 at 10:05 am

Great post as always. I believe everything you said, but I was disappointed with the long prelude justifying your post about it. Love is universal. I agree with everything you said about it. Let’s just acknowledge it. After all, without love, life wouldn’t be worth living.

Enjoyed the post!

Laura Beth

David Cain September 22, 2015 at 8:19 am

I actually cut down the prelude quite a bit, because it’s a really interesting phenomenon to me. We have automatic impressions of certain ideas and can’t be open to them if there is still resistance there. You may not be someone who resists the trope of love being a real solution, but many do. It’s true of many cliches: the idea is a good one, but we’ve heard it so much we can’t see it for what it is unless it’s presented from a different angle, or following a different argument.

Bobbi September 21, 2015 at 11:06 am

Well said! Just confirms, “Love never fails”…(1Cor. 13:4-8)
Enjoyed the post. Thanks!

Murielle Marie September 21, 2015 at 3:01 pm

David, I absolutely love this post :) When it landed in my inbox today I was immediately smitten. My work evolves around helping women to unconditionally love themselves in order to be happier, more confident, and have a better life altogether. It is so refreshing to read your thoughts on the subject of love (and self-love > I followed up with that 2009 article that I equally loved!) and yes I have to say that I come across a lot of people (men and women) that find the focus of my work too “woowoo” for them, as if love was not cool enough or tangible enough to be associated with. So thank you for this wonderful piece and for giving love back it’s true meaning: the all that we all need.

David Cain September 22, 2015 at 8:23 am

Thanks Murielle. Yeah, with the long preamble I was trying to avoid people’s “woowoo detectors” and come in the back door instead. The word love triggers a lot of feelings in us, and unfortunately one of them is cynicism sometimes.

Teresa September 21, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Every culture that has ever existed from the beginning of time has had its share of enduring myths. 21st-century America is no exception. One of the most rampant mythologies is the one surrounding the concept of love. There may come a day when humans are evolved enough that they can approach one another with realistic expectations. In my humble opinion it is not possible for me to love someone enough to make them happy, keep them safe or give them purpose. The most I can hope for is to be available from time to time to hold their hand through life without any expectations of anything in particular in return.

Curt September 21, 2015 at 7:15 pm

“The most I can hope for is to be available from time to time to hold their hand through life without any expectations of anything in particular in return.”

That’s a good definition of love if you ask me.

David Cain September 22, 2015 at 8:25 am

I think you’re totally right. Our books and movies have created a kind of mythology around love, as something that can cure (rather than manage) problems, and which can make you happy when there are reasons you’re not. Often our life experience contradicts the expectations we’ve developed from our mythology and it makes us think there’s something wrong with us (or our relationships).

Dan September 21, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Yep, love is a many splendored thing.

“Love expects nothing, and gives all. In giving all, it gets all.” – Manly P. Hall

Sevenfold Mysteries of Love – Manly P Hall

The Spectrum of Love – Alan Watts

Elephant Love Medley – Moulin Rouge

Fel September 21, 2015 at 5:18 pm

Excellent post. Reminds of a line from Thaddeus Golas’ 1972 new age classic, A Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment. When you encounter a particularly difficult situation or person, ask yourself: “What did you think it was that needed loving?”

David Cain September 22, 2015 at 8:26 am

I’m intrigued by that question but I don’t really understand it. Can you elaborate?

Fel September 22, 2015 at 4:50 pm

I believe it’s pretty much the same message you are imparting, perhaps with a twist. As I understand it, he is saying that those people and situations that we find most upsetting to us are precisely the ones most in need of being loved.

Fel September 22, 2015 at 4:58 pm

And, inspired by your post, I might add that these upsetting people and situations are also precisely the ones that we can benefit from most through our act of loving them.

Deanna Dobie September 21, 2015 at 8:51 pm

Hi David,
I really enjoy reading your posts. Especially today and felt like commenting for the first time. I totally get the well being towards others ends up back in our daily life’s outlook. Thank you for a very positive and motivating post!


David Cain September 22, 2015 at 8:28 am

Thanks Deanna!

Mike September 22, 2015 at 5:55 am

Acting with love can be incredibly powerful in all types of situations. It certainly doesn’t mean you have to act over the top and talk like a 1960s hippy high on weed. It can be as simple as intentionally talking politely and gently with a colleague or client. I use this a lot at work – especially when I’m talking to people about difficult situations regarding a project. Rather than acting anxious and angry, I try to speak using gentle and respectful language. The results are remarkable because it helps others to escape anxious thinking.

David Cain September 22, 2015 at 8:29 am

This is the kind of direct application of love I’m talking about. Speak gently, seek to understand.

Curtis Smale September 24, 2015 at 2:42 pm

I really liked this comment.

Lea Tsahakis September 22, 2015 at 8:20 am

Spot on David ! I made a point of practicing random acts of kindness while visiting a beautiful, but economically distressed Greek island last month.
I truly felt I left Aegina a little better than I found her, simply by acting with love at the frantic grocery store check-out line, in the added tenderness I showed a beggar, and when I befriended a visiting Londoner and her mom with dementia at my favorite beach. Simply loving took no added effort and enriched me far greater than the beneficiaries in the process. Love wins the day every time !

Nancy Nelson September 22, 2015 at 9:36 am

Thanks for this David – it stayed with me all day and changed the way I looked at the world. Here is some more musing about love, in a poem by another David: David Whyte.

“We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find our selves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.

The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to all its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.”

Lea Tsahakis September 22, 2015 at 11:54 am

That is a very profound quote. Thank you for sharing!

Filipe September 22, 2015 at 12:24 pm

You *always* need love, but I don’t think love is *all* you need for our well being.

Daniel Wilson September 22, 2015 at 7:09 pm

Thank you so much for the consistent, wonderfully-written reminders to be my best. Your work improves my life immeasurably.

Andrea September 22, 2015 at 8:34 pm

Thank you for the reminder that love is for giving and forgiving.

Dan September 24, 2015 at 10:20 am

What Technology Can’t Change About Happiness: As pills and gadgets proliferate, what matters is still social connection

““In the 1960s and ’70s, I would have been laughed at,” to suggest such a thing, Vaillant says. “But here I was finding hard data to support the fact that your relationships are the most important single thing in your well-being. It’s been gratifying to find support for something as sentimental as love.””

Dan September 24, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Whoops, should have included the preceding paragraph:

“However, Vaillant, who detailed his findings in the 2012 book Triumphs of Experience, objects to the term “happiness.” “The most important thing in happiness is to get the word out of your vocabulary,” he says. “The point is that a great deal of happiness is simply hedonism and I feel OK today because I’ve just had a Big Mac or a good bowel movement. That has very little to do with a sense of well-being. The secret to well-being is experiencing positive emotions.” And the secret to that, Vaillant argues, might sound trite. But you can’t argue with the facts. The secret is love.”

Curtis Smale September 24, 2015 at 3:42 pm

I wrote a comment about love on my blog after reading this, that references what I thought was the most important idea in this post: http://graceinsightandart.com/2015/09/24/what-is-love-2/

trillie October 6, 2015 at 3:40 am

This is excellent. The stuff about being averse to certain concepts because of their association with quacks has been what has kept me from getting into meditation for many years, as you mentioned. Thankfully I rescued it from the rubble some time ago. I like how you mention self-love as a means to quit smoking, because it’s a thing I’ve been focusing on lately, using the mantra “I take good care of myself, because I love myself”, which kind of makes me cringe when I type this! Such a shame how these strong ideas got so murky over the years we have to free them all over again…

Craig October 7, 2015 at 9:21 am

I was behind an elderly lady at the gas pump, patiently waiting my turn. She seemed to be fumbling in her car, not sure what she was doing, organizing her wallet or something. My patience grew thin and I finally went around her, upset that it was taking her so long. While I was getting my gas I noticed that the problem was that her car wouldn’t start. I offered to give her a jump and it started right up. I immediately felt bad about my earlier feelings and at the same time felt better for helping someone who needed it. I saw her a few moments later at her work while I was shopping. She was grateful and gave me a small chocolate bar. My day was better because of this experience. I’m normally not an impatient guy. Anyway, loved the article. Peace and love.

Jonathan V. October 17, 2015 at 3:06 am

I wasn’t expecting this one to be so impactful for me. I’ve been asking myself “What is the loving thing to do?” in many situations since you published this article, and I must say that it feels great to do the loving thing. A typical simple use case I encounter quite often having roommates is to do nice things for them. For instance if they have dishes left to clean, I would now happily clean them for them instead of thinking it’s not my business. It’s a bit similar to the stranger’s secret ally thing, except it’s for people you truly care about. That’s a very nice improvement, thank you!

Lisa October 17, 2015 at 9:03 am

Really enjoying your thoughtful posts. Now that I have some longitudinal data (I’m old-ish), I would offer a couple of ideas to you. Being a kook is a relative thing, that is, most people have slightly different definitions of what that is. When you are in a group of colleagues or friends that commonly identify certain beliefs as kooky, it can be hard to neutrally examine the “kooky” beliefs. (Point in fact, you felt you had to use disclaimers about kooky people when you said you think doing the loving thing is a good idea. And I don’t think doing the loving thing is a very radical statement, but you wanted us to know you didn’t want to mean it the “kooky” way.)

I come from an academic background, but at this point, I’m pretty far into what you would probably think are kooky beliefs. And I am at my happiest, most functional and stress-free so far. The reason I’m putting this out to you is that I want you to know that if you keep going down this road, you might start to question some of your own beliefs. Welcome to the journey, brother. I refer you to Martha Beck, Harvard Ph.D. social scientist, who started having experiences that were amazing. She wrote about them, with disclaimers like yours, but kept going and is a wonderful teacher for playing with “out there” ideas.

Keep up the good work!

bala December 30, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Almost every one of your posts that I’ve read so far like in the past week are things I’ve thought about a good deal for myself, and it is so very awesome (word doesn’t sound right there but idk) to see these ideas being conveyed by someone in a perfectly articulate and logical manner and to a sizable audience to receive them. I guess your audience must be comprised of people who already give a shit about anything or anyone. But how easy is it to positively influence someone who does not?

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