How do you define love? It’s an important question with Valentine’s Day less than a month away. Love can be defined as an unselfish devotion; a munificent concern and compassion for the good of another. Traditionally, we either think of an unconditional love towards a child or a romantic affectionate love exchanged between two people.
Eternal, unshakable love is the emotion quixotically spun into romance lore, whether in the pages of a novel or played out on film. We have seen the guy running into the church to stop a wedding, through an airport to catch a flight, and barge into a room, all professing his truest feelings at the last second.
Love can empower and render us weak in the same breath. Poets have been inspired to write odes, composers create musical works about it, and filmmakers’ bank on it for a guaranteed tear-jerker.
Ideally, we want to think love can move mountains, thwart villains, and mend all wounds. And if not, at least our lovelorn soul mate will pine inconsolably at the loss until they can be reunited.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers a defiantly new, unconventional concept of love in her recently released book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. She defines love as the emotion which happens in “micro-moments of positivity resonance.”
In the first chapter, Fredrickson suggests setting aside or deprogramming your culturally-fed traditional view of love:
“If you’ve come to view love as a commitment, promise, or pledge, through marriage or any other loyalty ritual, prepare for an about-face. I need you to step back from all of your preconceptions (of love) and consider an upgrade. Love 2.0 offers a different perspective, your body’s perspective … Love is not sexual desire or the blood-ties of kinship. Nor is it a special bond or commitment.”
Instead her perception of love is the reinforcement of positive emotions, how those are interpreted by the body as love, and the physical effects thereof.
Fredrickson, a leading researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage. Nor is the powerful emotion the yearning and passion that characterizes young love. Rather, it is built upon brief encounters of reinforced affirmations. Fredrickson suggests love is a connection characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person, whether a child, close friend, or romantic partner.
A global poll taken last Valentine’s Day showed that most married people, or those with a significant other, list their romantic partner as the greatest source of happiness in their lives. According to the same poll, nearly half of all single people are looking for a romantic partner, saying that finding a special person to love would contribute greatly to their happiness.
Fredrickson thinks these results reveal a “worldwide collapse of imagination. Thinking of love purely as romance or commitment that you share with one special person, as it appears most on earth do, surely limits the health and happiness you derive (from love). My conception of love, gives hope to people who are single or divorced or widowed this Valentine’s Day to find smaller ways to experience love.”
Fredrickson asserts you have to physically be with the person to experience a moment of positivity. She means in the same space, in person, otherwise you are not in love. You may feel connected or bonded to your partner, you may long to be in his or her company, but your body is completely loveless based on Fredrickson’s theory.
There are three biological influences that create love: mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. Each involves connection, and each contributes to micro-moments of positivity resonance that Fredrickson calls love. When you experience love, research has shown your brain mirrors the person’s you are connecting with in a unique way.
Oxytocin is considered the love hormone and facilitates in bonding. The hormone is released during sex and other moments of intimate connection, including childbirth, and works by making people feel more trusting and open to connection. This is the hormone that influences micro-moments of love.
The vagus nerve essentially connects your brain to your heart, and other viscera. Vagal tone is measured by examining a person’s heart rate in association with breathing rate. Having a healthy, high vagal tone means you can regulate biological processes more efficiently, have more control over behavior, and kindle positive connections with others. High vagal tone is associated with lowered risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.
As Fredrickson explains in her book:
“Your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person. It even adjusts the miniscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track her voice against any background noise.”
Fredrickson’s ideas about love are not exactly the stuff of romantic. Fredrickson’s goal is to lower cultural expectations about love, extraordinary expectations that are so misguidedly high today that they have inflated love into something that it isn’t.
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author, wrote The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom in 2006. In it, he suggests:
“True love is passionate love that never fades. If you are in true love, you should marry that person. If love ends, you should leave that person because it was not true love. And if you can find the right person, you will have true love forever … But if true love is defined as eternal passion, it is biologically impossible.”
Attaining true, sustainable love seems like a difficult and insurmountable chore, especially so for those in unhappy, unsatisfying relationships, or those who are single. The dating industry alone generates millions annually on the very principle that love can be easily found. Keeping it is another question.