The Colours of Love

(This was my entry for a school essay competition)

What is love? This question has managed to perplex and fascinate philosophers, psychologists, artists, writers, and even mathematicians alike, for centuries. In English, the word love can refer to love for one’s spouse, or for one’s mother, or even for a particular type of sandwich. In Greek, however, there are six different words to distinguish between the different forms of the notion: agape (selfless, altruistic love), ludus (passionate, playful love, usually devoid of any desire to commit), storge (a friendship-based sort of attachment), eros (intense romantic, passionate love), mania (obsession), and finally, pragma (a practical, mutually beneficial form) (Dewey, 2007).

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John A. Lee, a Canadian psychologist, explores these six forms of love in his book Colours of Love: An Exploration of the Ways of Loving, and my favourite diagram is an image that is featured in, and dissected throughout said book: the Colour Wheel of Love, which presents love and its spectral forms in a way that seems to provide some structure and aesthetic charm to an otherwise chaotic and confusing affair.

While I am able to fully appreciate other prominent diagrams, such as the Vitruvian man, and drawings depicting the golden ratio, when I read the book The Colours of Love, I was deeply fascinated by this particular one.

This diagram presents love- arguably the most complex, but universal, marvel known to man- in a traditional colour wheel format, with three primary types (eros, ludus and storge) which combine to create three secondary types (mania, pragma, and agape). As an avid reader and literary fiction enthusiast, I read about love and its many forms on a regular basis. I become invested in the lives of fictional characters, and, since sticking a picture of the colour wheel into my journal, I find myself constantly attempting to label and examine various fictional relationships, assigning them different colours. But in my view, the main form of love, which is omitted from, yet fully encompasses, this diagram, is philautia, or love for oneself.

The concept of self-love is not a concept that most of us in the West are unfamiliar with. Countless celebrities and corporations heartily encourage philautia, self-respect and confidence, and although the media plays a significant role in shaping such ideas, we are also naturally inclined to the practice of self-love; it is wired into our nature as human beings. Biologists argue that, as animals, our central purposes in life are to survive and reproduce, and our innate survival instincts are closely intertwined with our natural tendency to love ourselves: if we love ourselves, we are more likely to be willing to do whatever it takes in order to survive. The importance of philautia is evident when we analyse it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: whilst self-love extends over all five levels of human motivation (from physiological needs to those pertaining to self-actualisation) the love we possess for others is limited to only two strata: the stratum of love/belonging (as we are social beings who necessitate companionship) and that of esteem (as we desire approval and acceptance from others).

As amoral as it may sound, self-love is even at the heart of altruistic behaviours, because by helping others, we ultimately help ourselves. We make ourselves feel better by engaging in charitable endeavours, and there is typically some pleasure to be derived from seemingly selfless acts, such as volunteering or giving charity. Doing good for others stimulates the pleasure centre in the human brain, and results in the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals, namely dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (Breuning). Moreover, although the Confucian, Biblical, and Quranic principle of treating others how you would want to be treated may, upon first glance, appear like a didactic statement of an inherently selfless nature (which may fall under the categories of storge, pragma, or agape), upon closer analysis, it becomes clear that, once again, this form of love is deeply rooted in self-interest. Indeed, self-interest appears to be the central motivation of human behaviour, and, for this reason, the invisible (yet ubiquitous) colour that extends over the spectrum is philautia. Pragma brings us practical benefits, ludus brings us laughter and enjoyment, eros satisfies sexual desires, and storge gives us companionship- an escape from the abysmal void of loneliness.

Ostensibly, mania and agape stray from the trend that the other sections of the wheel follow, in that, in general, people have little to gain from obsessing over another person. On the contrary, it may prove detrimental to their health to do so. In the diagram, mania is represented through the colour purple; it is hence a mixture between red and blue, between ludus and eros. This relates directly to Maslow’s idea of esteem being a human psychological need: manic lovers look to love as a means of rescue, or a reinforcement of value. They come to believe that they need to be with their lovers, as a medium of self-validation, which, in turn, boosts their self-respect. For manic lovers, the intensification of philautia can lead to narcissism, and subsequently, intensified mania: they may increase the amount of power and control they exercise over their partners.

Agape has often been attributed to ‘purer’ manifestations of romantic love- as a type of storgic eros: friendship combined with romance, the fulfillment of both physical and spiritual desires. According to Lee’s diagram, when agape is subjected to an increase in ludus (or, playfulness) there is a risk of shifting to mania. Likewise, when agape experiences an increase in storge, it runs the risk of becoming closer to pragma. In the mass media, storge is often presented as the most desirable type, although according to content analysis carried out by Ward and Friedman, in films of the romantic genre, men are typically presented as ‘sex-hungry’, while women tend to be presented as sex objects (Holmes).

Gender differences are an interesting thing to consider when looking at the colour wheel: researchers Hendrick, Hendrick, Slapion-Foote, and Foote (1985) found that men were more likely to indulge in the ludic type of love, while women were more likely to be storgic or pragmatic (Hendrick, 1986). This theory links rather well with the idea of the ‘Seven Year Itch’, which (although it might sound like a kind of dermatological irritation) refers to a psychological theory put forth by Professor Helen Fisher, which suggests that (due to biological predispositions) the romantic passion within a long-term heterosexual relationship almost certainly declines before a couple’s seventh anniversary (Maestripieri). According to anthropologist Bernard Chapais (who observed similar behaviours and mating patterns among primates) this is because, after their offspring become more independent, men have an intrinsic desire to leave their families (though not all men act upon this desire!) and distribute their DNA to other women- thus succumbing to their ludic desires.

Research into the neurochemistry of love proves that there are three main stages to ‘falling in love’, which are initiated by the first stage: venereal desire. This directly corresponds with our evolutionary instincts- self-preservation and fulfillment, and, of course, reproduction. The other two stages of ‘falling in love’ are emotional attraction, followed by emotional attachment (BBC Science). This theory suggests that the cycle of love moves from eros or ludus, to storge, and pragma or agape (the two ideals, especially the latter) can be found along the way.

The Colour Wheel diagram, as simplistic as it may appear prima facie, has led me to ponder over, research, explore, and question, many different psychological and philosophical ideas. I find it particularly interesting that the dimensions of love can be explored in such a way, by comparing them to colours. Different mixtures with different amounts result in each friendship or relationship being centered on unique metaphorical colours. The English language seems to be colour-blind when it comes to such things- with only one word for ‘love’, and similarly only two words for ‘fishing net’, for which the Hawaiians have 65 different words…

Ultimately, the core ingredient in all forms of love is philautia, as love for oneself provides the bedrock of loving others. As a hopeless romantic (yet, somehow, a cynical ‘realist’ at the same time) I maintain the view that ‘true’ romantic love is possible. It is centred on self-love, and comprises a careful and healthy mixture of each of the six types of love displayed in my favourite diagram, in a beautiful mix of colours- a complex, messy, swirl of brown. In order to achieve this masterful exploitation of Lee’s colour wheel, as the legendary philosopher Justin Bieber habitually says:

“You should go and love yourself”

Works Cited

BBC Science. (n.d.). The Science of Love. Retrieved from Science: Human Body and Mind:

Breuning, D. L. (n.d.). Altruism is Selfish. Retrieved from The Positive Psychology People:

Dewey, D. R. (2007). Six Types of Love. Retrieved from Intropsych:

Hendrick, C. (1986). A Theory and Method of Love. American Psychological Association .

Holmes, J. (n.d.). Content Analysis of Romantic Comedies. Retrieved from Cinematherapy:

Maestripieri, D. (n.d.). The Seven Year Itch: Theories of Marriage, Divorce, and Love. Retrieved from Psychology Today:

Sadia Ahmed, 2017

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