When we say that we love someone, what do we really mean?Naïve teenagers say it when they have a crush. At weddings, couples vow to stay together for life; yet, our country’s alarmingly high divorce rate indicates many broken promises. If we were honest, maybe our declarations of love would sound more like, “I love you, unless you do something that upsets me.” Or perhaps, “I love you, unless you change from the way you are now.”Maybe what we really mean is, “I love you, unless you don’t make me happy enough.” Frankly, most people love others as long as it is beneficial to them. We love conditionally.Unfortunately, this is not true love.Consider this: true love is unconditional and may require sacrifice. Indeed, the love you feel for someone else may be tested. For example, a cousin in financial trouble may ask if she can move in with you for a while. Would you say yes, despite the inconvenience it may cause?Maybe you would. Perhaps you sacrifice your time and the pursuit of your dreams every day, just to support others. If this is burdensome and unsatisfying to you, don’t despair. Loving the way you do can be one of the most joyful and satisfying experiences for which you could ever hope.QUIZ: What is your relationship personality?Mother Teresa once said, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” Indeed, loving unconditionally is a transcendental way of being. It’s so strong that parts of you will begin to disappear—only the love will remain. It will consume you and prove to be virtually indestructible.Sadly, unconditional love eludes most Americans. Pop culture has taught us that love is something that makes us happy; many people believe that if we are no longer happy in a romantic or nonromantic relationship, we must no longer love that person. Truthfully, this is a very shortsighted and superficial way to conceptualize love.Why is it so difficult to love unconditionally? The simple answer is fear. You may suspect that loving so deeply will encourage others to take advantage of you. If, out of love, you agree to babysit a friend’s children, what will stop her from asking you for the same favor again and again? Also, you may be unwilling to trust people to reciprocate the love that you show them. If you spent hours preparing a special dinner for your husband, it would be very upsetting if he did nothing for you in return. If such fears concern you, know this: loving others unconditionally is a radical and fundamental avenue toward happiness.When you love unconditionally, you have no choice but to shed the selfishness and insecurity that are often the very causes of your suffering. There is no time to be self-centered if your newborn twins require nightly diaper changes at 3am. Indeed, you will find that the act of loving itself gives you happiness, not receiving love from others. If you hold others responsible for making you happy, you will eventually be disappointed.Instead, decide to love others regardless of how they treat you, and experience the hidden joy of this simple choice. Of course, do not stay in abusive relationships. Unconditional love does not require that you subject yourself to excessive mistreatment. In such cases, the first step is forgiveness, which is explored in another “Cloud Nine” article.MORE: How to be kind to yourselfUnfortunately, loving unconditionally does not come to most people naturally. So how do we do it?

  1. Start with yourself. As I’ve discussed in a previous Cloud Nine article, nearly all of us suffer from a lack of self-love. It is virtually impossible to truly love others without regarding yourself with compassion and acceptance. Loving-kindness meditation is a great way to begin this process, and leads to increased experiences of positive emotions such as joy and hope1.
  2. Select a target. Think of someone who deserves your unconditional love. It could be a parent, husband or wife, sibling, or friend. Start with someone with whom you already have a healthy relationship and gradually expand to others from there.
  3. Become other-oriented. Set aside your personal preferences or concerns. Focus on what you can do for someone else and the satisfaction you will feel when you do it. Do it graciously and without expecting anything in return. Give yourself the chance to love this way, even if it feels a bit uncomfortable at first.

Discover the delight of investing in the wellbeing of someone else. Feel the freedom of dropping your skepticism and trusting in the benefits of loving others. Although you may feel vulnerable, love will protect you. In truth, loving freely, without fear, and unconditionally is far more powerful than you may believe. Go ahead and see for yourself.