Ask any parent what they want for their children and they will say happiness. But what can parents do to insure their child’s well being?

Imagine a scene. Soft warm lighting, gentle sounds. A close up on two faces. One, a mother, the other, her infant. Mom holds baby securely in her arms and gazes into her baby’s eyes. She smiles. Baby settles into mom’s hold, gurgles and smiles back. This scene has been repeated endless times. But if we look beyond the surface, what is happening in mom and baby’s neurological system?

When the baby sees mom looking at her with attention and love in her eyes, this releases certain chemicals in the brain that make the baby excited and happy. The baby experiences pleasure. The mother has a similar neuro-chemical reaction. The baby begins to associate this good feeling with mom and her loving gaze. It is naturally built into the baby to seek out such good feelings, so it begins to want mom for another hit of euphoria. This is the beginning of a bond of attachment between mother and infant.

Evolution has done a good job of adaptation by fostering this connection between baby and mother for several reasons. One of the most obvious is that infants are completely vulnerable and need the protection of its parents to survive. The baby’s and mother’s need and desire for closeness keeps the baby safe.

But there is another reason why this look of love is important for the newborn. When mother and child share this gaze, the child’s brain is bathed in happy-making brain chemicals like dopamine. This triggers the growth of neurons, and neuron connections, in the brain. Neurons and their connections are what provide us with all of the abilities that our brains give us. When the baby grows neurons as a result of sharing a loving gaze with mom, this leads to the development of the baby’s ability to think, feel, imagine, act and connect with others. The full development and realization of these abilities are the wellspring of happiness. The baby wants to keep going back for more and more of this emotional meal, and each time they do their brain grows and develops in a positive way.

Imagine another scene. Cold lighting, loud noises. Mom is depressed, distracted and self-absorbed. She holds her baby limply. She gazes off into space. The infant sensing that she is not being held securely. The infant automatically goes into the “moro reflex,” which is the way a baby tenses its body when it feels like it is falling. The baby seeks out mother, but even though the mom is there physically, the infant “feels” abandoned. This causes the baby’s brain to be flooded with stress hormones like cortisol. It feels anxious, frightened, angry and despairing. These chemicals destroy neurons and neuron connections in the brain. The baby’s capacities for love and connection do not develop. The baby begins to learn that she is unlovable and the world is an unsafe place. If the baby experiences something like this over and over, the building blocks for anxiety and depression are put into place.

Neuro-biological research has now proven that the mother’s look of love is the first emotional sunlight, soil and water for the child to grow toward becoming what it is meant to be: capable, fulfilled and loving.

The foundation of adult happiness is very simple. If you are a parent who wants your children to be happy, look at them with love.

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The traditional Chinese character for love (愛)...
Image via Wikipedia

Where does love come from?

Contemporary science tells us that love is built into us. As the great researcher, Allan Schore, proves, we enter the world pre-wired to love the first person who takes care of us. Once an infant is born it works like this. When an infant sees his mother gazing at him with love in her eyes, happy neuro-chemicals flood the infant’s brain. The child feels happy. He or she likes this feeling and wants more of it. This sets up an attachment to the source of this good feeling. Since the good feeling comes from mom, the kid starts to love mom. We are genetically set up so that when the brain gets a good dose of those happy-making chemicals, we grow neurons in our brain. These neurons form the basis of our feeling confident in the world. They enable us to create and sustain loving connections with other people.

As we grow into childhood, when we receive the proper emotional attunement from our loved ones, our brains continue to develop and we mature our natural propensity to love and be loved. It is when we get our emotional needs met that we grow the ability to love more and more people in deeper and deeper ways. John Bowlby makes a great case that this built in ability to love is evolutionarily adaptive. That is, it contributes to the survival of our species. Helpless infants and mothers need to be bonded because little babies can’t survive without that protection and care. Without love, we do not thrive. Those neurons that grow from love also contribute to the development of our ability to think, feel, create, imagine, act and care for ourselves in the best possible way. Our ability to love and connect is what is natural and adaptive. Our destructive aggressiveness happens when our natural emotional needs for a loving relationship get frustrated.

When we understand that our love is innate, we realize that children are not bad without a moral basis and need to be “trained” and restrained to be obedient. This view that children are evil and need to be broken has justified all kinds of abuse. We now know that this kind of child rearing leaves permanent scars. Instead, if our task as parents is to cultivate the love that already exists in our child by giving love, it makes our job clear.  Our children are precious with potentials that need to be nurtured, nourished and lovingly tended.

Our natural ability to love is our common human bond. Mencius, Confucius‘s disciple, said that every human heart is alike. When we realize this, this becomes our basis for living.  Since we are all alike, we must live our lives according to the golden rule, which has been understood in every culture and religion, including the philosophy of Confucius. The Chinese character for this reciprocity, that is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is shu, which is a combination of the characters for “heart” and “alike.” It’s common meaning is forgiveness.

Our central core of loving compassion is what Mencius called heart. This is what he believed defined what it meant to be truly human or humane. This natural empathy, or the ability to feel what others feel, is what Mencius used as the primary proof that man is essentially good. In order to be fully human, we need to cultivate and develop this heart of compassion.

If this is the case, then the best thing we can do for ourselves, the ones closest to us, and for the planet is to develop our ability to love. Certainly, as we understand the great chain of being, it is our love that helps grow love in our children. Though we understand this scientifically today, this wisdom was understood by Confucius and his follower, Mencius, 2500 years ago. Confucius’s main concern was human relationship. He understood that we were in alignment with our intrinsic purpose on this planet when we were able to have the best relationship with others.

The Confucians believed that our whole society needed to be built on this principle. Our leaders needed to run the state so that relationships would be in greatest harmony and there would be the ultimate conditions for the realization of love. This is a great model for our own leaders and one we need to encourage them to embrace.

As part of this societal imperative, learning about love needs to be central to our education. 70 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt, after seeing the catastrophe of a world war, said that schools needed to expand from the three R’s to four: reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships. He believed that the very survival of the world depended on us learning how better to love and connect through relationship and that it was the responsibility of society at large to provide this direction. In some ways we seem further from this educational goal almost a century later.

This common core of love also means that we do not need to look outside of ourselves for what we seek to become in life. Confucius also said, “the measure of man is man.” What this means is that we can all begin where we are, and by developing our best attributes, we can become wise, strong, passionate and optimally loving.

Confucius’s idea of this ideal person was captured by the Chinese character, Jen. This character is made up of the characters for “man” and “two,” signifying that the measure of an individual is his or her ability for good relationship. The ideal person is one who can connect with others, who can love.

Within each of us is such a fine person, because we can become one, given the proper cultivation. This begins with how we are raised. But once we become grown ups, we need to take over the task of cultivation. We must self-cultivate.

How do we develop our capacity for love and compassion? This is an especially important question because not one of us received the optimal nurturance growing up.

Confucius would say that this begins with tireless self-education. We must explore our great cultural heritage to understand what the pilgrims who have gone before us have learned about love and how to achieve it. We must imagine this ideal, and continue to develop this image so that we have a goal to aim for. We must immerse ourselves in the arts, because this is the food of love.

Finally, our heart of love and compassion is cultivated through our actions, what we do every day. Each day we must practice living up to our highest vision of love. We become more humane – we find our hearts – through giving. To be what we are meant to be, we need to open ourselves and passionately risk all for the sake of loving others.

Science has now joined philosophy and spirituality in understanding that love is our root, answer, and what we are made of.  Through a commitment and devotion to a lifetime of self exploration, you must travel within yourself to find the lost and hidden heart, because there you will discover that the source of love is within yourself. That’s where love comes from.

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