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What Is This Thing Called Love?

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A Whole New Way of Looking at It

By Barbara Fredrickson

As you check out at the grocery store, you share a laugh with the cashier about the face you see peering up at you from the uncommonly gnarled potato in your basket. At work, you and your teammates celebrate a shared triumph with hugs and high fives. On your morning jog, you smile and nod to greet fellow runners and silently wish them a good day. After a trip that’s kept you apart for too many days, you share a long embrace with a family member. Can these everyday moments be called love? What exactly is love?

First and foremost, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. As with all positive emotions, the inner feeling it brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant—it feels extraordinarily good, the way a long, cool drink of water feels when you’re parched on a hot day. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micromoment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you—what lies beyond your skin—relax and become more permeable. While infused with love, you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others—really see them, wholeheartedly—springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.

Then, slowly, this expansive and transcendent feeling fades away, just like any other emotion, be it anger, joy, or sadness. However wondrous, feelings of love sweep through you for only a few moments. No emotion is built to last, not even the ones that feel so good. True, you can learn to coax your fleeting micromoments of love to linger with you a bit longer, and you can revive them later through conversation, but their duration is best measured in seconds or minutes, not months or years. Love is the ephemeral and precious openness you feel well up in your chest, not a rock-solid ring made of precious metal on your left hand.

The love I speak of here is also far from exclusive. It’s not just that unique feeling you reserve for your spouse or your romantic partner. It even extends beyond your warm feelings for your children, parents, or close friends. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection. It’s that poignant stretching of your heart that you feel when you gaze into a newborn’s eyes for the first time or share a farewell hug with a dear friend. It’s even the fondness and sense of shared purpose you might unexpectedly feel with a group of strangers who’ve come together to marvel at a hatching of sea turtles or cheer at a football game. The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people—even strangers—connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.

To put it in a nutshell, love is the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.

My shorthand for this trio is positivity resonance. Within those moments of interpersonal connection that are characterized by this amplifying symphony—of shared positive emotions, biobehavioral synchrony, and mutual care—life-giving positivity resonates between and among people. This back-and-forth reverberation of positive energy sustains itself—and can even grow stronger—until the momentary connection wanes, which is of course inevitable, because that’s how emotions work.

I’ve come up with a visual metaphor for positivity resonance that likens it to a mirror. This seems apt because a moment of positivity resonance, by definition, involves considerable mirroring at three different levels: you and the other person mirror the positivity in each other’s emotional state; you mirror each other’s gestures and biochemistry; and you mirror each other’s impulse to care for one another. So in a moment of positivity resonance, to some extent, you each become the reflection and extension of the other. Sure enough, when you face a conventional mirror, you meet eyes only with yourself. Imagine, though, facing a mirror straight on and seeing this other person. Before this moment of positivity resonance, the two of you were off doing your own thing—feeling your own emotions, making your own moves, and following your own inclinations. But in this particular moment of connection, your respective feelings, actions, and impulses align and come into sync. For just a moment, you each become something larger than yourself. This is no ordinary moment. Within this mirrored reflection and extension of your own state, you see far more. A powerful back-and-forth union of energy springs up between the two of you, like an electric charge.

Ordinary positive emotions don’t resonate like this at all. They’re not mirrored back to you. Although the warmth of any positive emotion stretches your mind and spurs you to grow in ways that leave you more resourceful and resilient than before, only love creates such a deep interpersonal resonance. That’s because within micromoments of love, your own positivity, your own warmth and openness, evoke—and is simultaneously evoked by—the warmth and openness emanating from the other person. This shared positivity gets further amplified by the synchronized changes in biochemistry that course through your bodies and the attention you each show the other—the smiles, the leaning in, your verbal and nonverbal expressions of care and concern for each other. These are powerful, energizing moments. Your body was designed to harness this power—to live off it. Your ability to understand and empathize with others depends mightily on having a steady diet of positivity resonance, as do your potentials for wisdom, spirituality, and health.

Odds are, if you were raised in a Western culture, you think of emotions as largely private events. You locate them within a person’s boundaries, confined within their mind and skin. When conversing about emotions, your use of singular possessive adjectives betrays this point of view: you refer to “my anxiety,” “his anger,” or “her interest.” Following this logic, love would seem to belong to the person who feels it. Defining love as positivity resonance challenges this view. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people—within interpersonal transactions—and thereby belongs to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. Love alters the unseen activity within your body and brain in ways that trigger parallel changes within another person’s body and brain. More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections. It extends beyond personal boundaries to characterize the vibe that pulsates between and among people. It can even energize whole social networks or inspire a crowd to get up and dance.

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  • Comment Link Thursday, 06 February 2014 19:00 posted by Eddie Reece

    I too don't view love as an emotion. Here's my take on what love is:What Is Love?

    Today’s word is love. A lot of conflict happens because people have different definitions to this simple word. Most of the time, I think those definitions are wrong. So what is love? After all the poetry, music, books and movies on the subject, you’d think we’d have this one down by now. Here’s some ideas of what I think love is.

    Love is like my garden. When I look at it, spend time out there, I have a number of feelings and behaviors. I admire it, I praise it, I share peaceful moments with it. Those satisfying feelings are not love. Love is not a feeling. So if it’s not a feeling, what is it?

    To know what love is, let’s first turn to what it’s not. In my consulting room, one of the most common definitions of love is admiration. When people fall in love, they form a mutual admiration club. That’s not love. Neither is the lust they feel. Falling in love should be called falling in lust. You only lust for people you want to have sex with, so it’s about sex, not love. Falling in love happens to us. True love is a choice.

    Love isn’t that warm, mushy feeling you have with loved ones. It’s not any feeling at all. The feelings we have with those we love are the results of love. Some results of love aren’t good feelings at all. It’s not unusual for love to produce unwanted feelings. Now I’m not talking about jealousy or hatred. Those don’t come from love. I’m talking about unwanted feelings like grief because we loved so well.

    Love isn’t what “love songs” tell us it is. “I can’t live without you” is not love. If you can’t live without something, you’re a parasite. So when you “fall in love,” and have all those sexual feelings and are afraid you’ll die if the other leaves, you become a sexual parasite. It’s fun, but it’s not love.

    Love is action. Finally getting back to my garden, love is the planning, buying, planting, watering and weeding. It’s work. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don’t, but it’s still love. Love is a choice. I choose to work in the garden. Out of my choice, comes all the feelings that are the results of my love. Love is really a verb.

    I’m sure you know what a verb is so let’s get back to love. The work of loving someone is listening and being there for them. It’s choosing to do what is necessary for the other. It involves sacrifice, but not the kind that creates an obligation or turns you into someone you’re not. With true love, you’d never hear, “After all I’ve done for you, you treat me like this.” Love is a gift. When you give a gift, there are no expectations for a return on your investment.

    Here’s a twist on the conventional wisdom that love is unconditional. I don’t think it’s unconditional at all. Since love is a choice, there must be qualifications. I can’t love everybody. I don’t even know everybody and if love is action, I don’t have the time to love 6 billion people. I think we choose whom we love and it’s best if it’s an ongoing decision making process. People change, conditions change and our choices about love change.

    Since love is a choice, there are varying degrees of love. Add that to the idea of love being an ongoing process of choosing, then love can be fleeting. It only exists in the moment. Given that love is a verb, there has to be action. To believe you love someone doesn’t mean anything unless there is action directed at the betterment of the other and love only exists in the moment of action. The rest is the results of love, the feelings one has afterwards.

    Our involvement with others can consist of admiration, playfulness, sharing of experiences, but it’s not love unless there is a choice and the conditions of a choice to love are met. In other words, people have to behave in our approved manner in order to be loved by us.

    Let’s follow a Typical Romantic Relationship. Two people fall in love. Lots of lust, parasitic feelings and an overwhelming desire to declare ownership over the beloved. Under the influence of lust, which is a form of accepted insanity, a life changing decision is made to commit to love the other forever. So in other words, each declare they will always choose to love the other, regardless of any changes that happen.

    To begin with, you’d need supernatural powers to love someone after you’re dead, so forever is stretching it a bit. But, insanity will do that to a thought process. You can’t own someone unless they’re a slave, but our culture teaches us we have ownership over others. It’s in the very nature of our language. “My significant other.” The word my is used as a prefix to define most of our relationships. My friend, my brother, my attorney. We don’t own these people, but we speak as if we do. I don’t think this is a good idea to speak as if we own folks, but our cultural infrastructure, “the water we swim in,” doesn’t leave us much choice.

    So our two love birds commit to love each other no matter what. Then all sorts of obstacles appear. There’s work, play, friends, family, other loves, other choices that compete with our beloved. Obligation appears. The choice to love “no matter what,” a choice that was made in the past, isn’t reexamined against new criteria and new choices. A choice to love isn’t as easy to make now, and an obligation to love forms. In many instances, I believe that obligation over takes a desire to love and the acts of love diminish. The action of love only happens in the moment of choosing and the choice is conditional and has to be made freely, not under the feeling of an obligation.

    So our couple does their best to live up to the commitment without taking the time to decide if they really want to. Now I know what you’re thinking. To buy my idea here, you think that people will then just love for the moment and then end the relationship when the ability to choose to love the other is too difficult. You’d rather there be a commitment that lasts forever. I don’t think that’s necessary. I actually think that kind of forever commitment often works against having a lasting, loving relationship. I think love only happens as the choice is made in an ongoing fashion. To attempt to live up to a commitment made weeks, months or years ago, when people and circumstances were different is to create obligation and I rarely see anyone happy to be obligated or feel chosen out of obligation. The feeling of obligation diminishes desire. So what to do?

    My intention is not to be pessimistic about love. I’m quite the romantic. My desire is to change the infrastructure to incorporate a love built on realistic terms. The love I’m describing is much more satisfying than being in a relationship because of a feeling of obligation. I want to know my partner and actively choose her in the moment. Only then will I feel truly loved and that I’m truly loving. I’ll also need to let go of my expectations that I’ll be loved in the next moment which adds to the sense of obligation. A conditional love based on choice is a love that can grow and change as people and conditions change. An unconditional love based on duty and the desire to be rid of fear, is destined to wither and die.

    A few more words about ownership. To own is to have dominion over. Dominion is territorial. It connotes power and authority over. When you own, you have a sense of control over, a say so about the other’s actions and beliefs. Not too many people want to be owned, but most want to own. There are countless “normal” beliefs and actions in romantic relationships that stem from the sense of ownership.

    I hear it on the golf course all the time. “I can’t play next week, my wife wants me to…” That’s always said with the tone of a hopelessness and resentment, as in “I’ll never be able to be the person I want to be.” Those resentments, no matter how small, the feelings that we can’t be who we are or do what we want, build up over time and cause friction in romantic relationships.

    I know what some of you are thinking. “We’ll if I let the other do whatever they want, (pick one or more) I’ll never see them – We’ll never have any time together – Nothing will get done around the house, he’ll never come home from work, she’ll spend all the money on clothes.” This is a list that could go on forever and one of the threads that would run through each choice is an all or nothing belief punctuated by the words like never, always, none. When you find an all or nothing belief connected to a fear, there is usually an unhealed, emotional wound.

    From that wound, or maybe from all those wounds, comes the destructive desire to own and all that ownership means. The underlying belief is that the other should never hurt me. And in order to keep them from hurting me, I have to control what they do and how they do it. This is also known as codependency.

    So what happens to our couple? They’ll enter a power struggle, that may last their entire lives. They may tire of that struggle and live “lives of quiet desperation” as roommates. Or they can face the issues that stem from ownership, lust and unrealized dreams – in my way of thinking, go to therapy.

    So next time you tell someone you’ll love them forever, know it’s wishful thinking and enjoy the moment. Wishing you the best in your relationships!

  • Comment Link Saturday, 01 February 2014 21:13 posted by ROBERT ROSENTHAL

    An interesting and provocative hypothesis -- and I 'love' that Frederickson recognizes love as an expansion beyond the bounds of self, but as I see it, there are some real problems with her theory.

    1. Is love really an emotion, as Frederickson postulates? Or, to get technical, is it a true affect? As a disciple of Silvan Tomkins (under whom Paul Ekman studied), any affect by definition triggers a patterned facial expression, one we recognize in others as well as on our own face. The smile and eyes opening wider of the affect Interest/Excitement is recognized across all cultures; all those other "smiles" Frederickson mentions are not innately programmed, but involve varying degrees of manipulation or simulation; hence, they strike us as ingenuine. What then is the characteristic facial expression of love? It is not one of Tomkins' innate affects, nor do I think it qualifies. Love tends to defy easy characterization.

    2. To define love as requiring physical interaction/connection strikes me as problematic and more than a bit forced. Most of us can call up a far stronger feeling of love from our recollection of a tender moment, event or person than we can when in their actual presence, even if connected and in positive resonance. (Anyone with a child away at college can relate to this one.)

    2a. The "purest" and yes, most unconditional experience/ expression of love is what the Greek's termed 'agape'. And 'agape' finds its purest, most intense expression in the mystical experience, which can and usually does occur without any physical connection or positivity resonance to another person. Read the accounts of the Sufi or medieval Christian mystics, or check out Bernini's sculpture of St. Theresa in Ecstasy for a portrait of Love. There's no doubt that what they describe is the epitome of love, yet they relate it to God and not another human whom they're mirroring or connecting to or resonating with in any way.

    I don't know if neuroscience will ever be able to characterize love or reduce it to a set of conditions or brain states. But Frederickson's positivity resonance theory, appealing on the surface, has far too many flaws to be convincing, at least to this student of the mind.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 21 January 2014 22:04 posted by Robert Hennelly

    Thank you for your discussion of love. However, I disagree with your assertion that love is an emotion. It is an energy, at a very high vibration. It may be accompanied by higher emotions, but not necessarily. And the highest vibrations of love arise from the depth of the heart chakra.