Freud came up with the term libido to describe the sum of all the human instincts related to love.
In his view, there was a limited amount of this libidinal energy and it was important to use it wisely. Invest it in the wrong activities and you could end up with nothing to show for it. This notion of limits and scarcity seems to suffuse Freud’s thinking and could perhaps reflect a somewhat depressive aspect of his personal character.
Later, Carl Jung expanded the meaning of the term to encompass not just love and sex, he felt that libidinal energy was really life energy.
I have been thinking about life energy for a while. Noticing how there are some people who seem to overflow with it, how it crests when people are manic and falls when people are depressed, but also how illness and aging affect it.
I met with an older attorney this afternoon. He’s a delightful widower who recently returned to world of dating. One of the challenges that he has had to face is the reduction in his capacity for sex. This is a very important issue, pleasure and libido has always been important to him.
There is a strong relationship between life energy, pleasure and vitality, not only psychological vitality, but physical health as well. One of the observations that I have often made about people who are getting older is that the decline in their physical health is often preceded by a decline in their life energy, their interest in creative and pleasurable activity, traveling, sex, romance, etcetera. I think this may not be a coincidence.
Recently I came across an intriguing study that suggested that levels of gonadotropin releasing hormone (the brain hormone that regulates the levels of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone in the body) correlated with memory and brain function. Of course, this intriguing finding is no more than a tantalizing hint about how libido and aging may interrelate.
Another interesting relationship is between exercise and life energy.
Recently, the New York Times ran an article highlighting new research that shows how exercise radically affects how our genes are transcribed. This provides a biological explanation for the long noticed fact that continued exercise, or physical activity, is one of the most important predictors of healthy aging. Physical exercise is, in fact, a better way of preventing brain atrophy than doing puzzles or challenging the brain in other ways.
Talking with the widower attorney, I noticed that his reduced sexual ability correlated with a shift in his mood towards a mild depression. Along with that shift, had come a noticeable reduction in physical exercise and how much he was involved in pleasurable activities such as going to concerts and listening to music.
I suggested that he might focus on reversing some of these changes (getting more physically active, going outdoors more, doing more pleasurable things) before he turned to focus on the more purely physical aspects of sexuality.
Freud’s notion of a limited amount of libidinal energy seems clearly contradicted by the evidence that the more we do, the more active we are (in many spheres and dimensions) the more we seek and use life energy, the healthier and stronger we are. In other words, husbanding our energy, leading more and more constricted and constrained lives, is exactly the opposite of what science suggests leads to long life and health.