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What Is This Thing Called Love? - Page 2

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The Right Context for Connection

Positivity resonance doesn’t spring up at random. It emerges within certain circumstances, stemming from particular patterns of thought and action. These are love’s bedrock prerequisites. The first precondition is a perception of safety. If you assess your current circumstances as threatening or dangerous in any way, love isn’t a possibility for you at that moment. Indeed, your brain has been shaped by the forces of natural selection to be exquisitely attuned to threats. Your innate threat-detection system even operates outside your conscious awareness. You could be engrossed in conversation, or enjoying a blissful run in the woods, for instance, and still instantaneously spot that writhing snake on your path. Although true threats are rare, not everyone can trust the world this way. People who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even loneliness or low self-esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly, this overalert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance.

Love’s second precondition is connection, true sensory and temporal connection with another living being. You no doubt try to “stay connected” when physical distance keeps you and your loved ones apart. You use the phone, email, and increasingly texts or Facebook, and it’s important to do so. Yet your body, sculpted by the forces of natural selection over millennia, wasn’t designed for the abstractions of long-distance love, the XOXOs and LOLs. It hungers for more. It hungers for moments of oneness.

Feelings of oneness surface when two or more people “sync up” and come to act as one. You can sync up like this with a stranger just as you can with a lifelong companion. When positivity resonance moves between you and another, the two of you begin to mirror each other’s postures and gestures, and even finish each other’s sentences. When you especially resonate with someone else—even if you’ve just met—the two of you are quite literally on the same wavelength, biologically. Synchrony also unfolds internally, as your physiological responses—in both body and brain—mirror each other as well.

Thus, true connection is a prime reason that love isn’t unconditional, but instead requires a particular stance. Neither abstract nor mediated, true connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires a co-presence of bodies, and the main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact. Other forms of real-time sensory contact—through touch, voice, or mirrored body postures and gestures—no doubt connect people as well and, at times, can substitute for eye contact. Nevertheless, eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness.

A smile, more so than any other emotional expression, pops out and draws your eye. That’s a good thing, too, because a smile can mean so many different things. Why, for instance, is your new coworker suddenly smiling at you? Is she being sincere or smug? Friendly or self-absorbed? Caring or just polite? Considering that Paul Ekman, the world’s leading scientist of human facial expressions, estimates that humans regularly use some 50 different types of smiles, the ambiguity of any given smile becomes more understandable. Plus, the differences between different types of smiles—a friendly smile, an enjoyment smile, a domineering smile, even a fake smile—can be subtle. Whereas scientists like Ekman use slow-motion video capture to detect those subtle differences, all you have are your gut feelings to figure out what your coworker’s smile really means. Yet those gut feelings can be a powerful source of intuition and wisdom if you know how best to access them. Eye contact, it turns out, is crucial. New scientific evidence suggests that if you don’t make direct eye contact with your coworker, you’re at a distinct disadvantage in trying to figure out what she really feels or means.

Eye contact is the key that unlocks the wisdom of your intuitions because when you meet your smiling coworker’s gaze, her smile triggers activity within your own brain circuitry that allows you to simulate—within your own brain, face, and body—the emotions you see emanating from hers. You now know, through this rapid and nonconscious simulation, more about what it feels like to have smiled like that. Access to this embodied feeling actually makes you wiser. You become more accurate, for instance, at discerning what her unexpected smile means. You’re more attuned, less gullible. You intuitively grasp her intentions. She wasn’t being friendly after all; she was gloating. You don’t need to be a cynic to recognize that not all smiles are sincere bids for connection. Some smiles may even be flashed to exploit or control you. Just as you rely on your senses to discern nutritious from rotting food, so, too, can you rely on your senses to help you separate the honest from dishonest invitations for connection.

Once you’ve made eye contact, your conclusions about your coworker’s smile, conscious or not, inform your gut and your next move. Without eye contact, it’s much easier to experience misunderstandings, crushed hearts, and exploitation as you over- or under-interpret the friendliness of other people’s smiles. You can also miss countless opportunities for life-giving connection. Eye contact helps you better detect the sincere affiliative gestures within a sea of merely polite or decidedly manipulative smiles that bid for your attention. Love, then, is not blind.

Moments of seemingly shared positivity abound. You, and those in your midst, can be infused with one form of positivity or another, yet not be truly connected. You and everyone else in the movie theater, for instance, share the positivity emanating from the big screen; you and the person next to you in the lecture hall are fascinated by the same set of new ideas; you and your family members take in the same television comedy. Yet absent eye contact, touch, laughter, or another form of behavioral synchrony, these moments are akin to what developmental psychologists call parallel play. They no doubt feel great and their positivity confers broaden-and-build benefits both to you and to others, independently. But if they’re not (yet) directly and interpersonally shared experiences, they don’t resonate or reverberate, and so they’re not (yet) instances of love. The key to love is to add some form of physical connection.

To be clear, the sensory and temporal connections you establish with others through eye contact, touch, conversation, or other forms of behavioral synchrony are not, in and of themselves, love. Even holding hands, after all, can become a loveless habit. Yet in the right contexts, these gestures become springboards for love. The right contexts are those infused with the emotional presence of positivity.

Love, then, requires connection. This means that when you’re alone, thinking about those you love, reflecting on past loving connections, yearning for more, or even when you’re practicing loving-kindness meditation or writing an impassioned love letter, you’re not in that moment experiencing true love. It’s true that the strong feelings you experience when by yourself are important and absolutely vital to your health and well-being. But they’re not (yet) shared, and so they lack the critical and undeniably physical ingredient of resonance. Physical presence is key to love, to positivity resonance.

The problem is that all too often, you simply don’t take the time that’s needed to truly connect with others. To the contrary, contemporary society, with its fast-changing technology and oppressive workloads, baits you to speed through your day at a pace that’s completely antithetical to connection. Feeling pressured to accomplish more each day, you multitask just to stay afloat. Any given moment finds you plotting your next move. What’s next on your never-ending to-do list? What do you need and from whom? Increasingly, you converse with others through emails, texts, tweets, and other ways that don’t require speaking, let alone seeing one another. Yet these can’t fulfill your body’s craving for connection. Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present. It also requires that you slow down.

My second-born was such a good sleeper that my husband or I could place him in his crib awake and he’d happily drift off to sleep all on his own. Our firstborn was altogether different. He needed to be in our arms while he drifted off. He also needed a particular motion, one that we couldn’t achieve in the comfort of a rocking chair, but only by walking. For at least the first year of his life, my husband or I would slowly pace across the nursery, holding him in our arms, for up to 30 minutes or more. He trained us well. We learned that we could place him in his crib only after he’d succumbed to a deep sleep. Anything less would lead to another long bout of pacing.

With so many things to juggle as new parents, not to mention our own sleep deprivation, my husband and I began to dread the time-sink of this bedtime ritual. We’d yearn to be released from the shadowy nursery so that we could tackle the mounting dishes and laundry, make headway on a few more work projects by email, or collapse into our own bed. Then, my husband discovered a radical shift that changed everything. He gave up thinking about where else he could be and immersed himself in this parenting experience. He tuned in to our son’s heartbeat and breath. He appreciated his warmth, his weight in his arms, and the sweet smell of his skin. By doing so, he transformed a parental chore into a string of loving moments. When my husband shared his secret with me, we each not only enjoyed this bedtime ritual all the more, but our son also fell more swiftly into his deep sleep. Looking back, I now recognize that even though we were physically present with our son as we’d walked him to sleep, at first we weren’t also emotionally present. I have no doubts that infants can pick up on mismatches between their parents’ outward actions and inner experiences. In our case, this mismatch had initially prevented the joys and benefits of cross-generational positivity resonance from emerging.

Our boys are now nine and twelve, and their bedtime rituals have changed accordingly. Yet it strikes me that, living less than a mile from our kids’ school, my husband and I still have the same opportunity for a walking connection with our kids each day. Yet in the mad dash to get the kids to school on time each weekday, it’s easy to find any excuse to drive. We all know the virtues of walking. It’s good for our bodies, our brains, as well as the environment. What often goes unrecognized, however, is the good it does for our relationships. It offers up the time, physical copresence, and shared movements to satisfy our and our kids’ daily craving for connection. Of course, we can still spoil this chance by being mentally and emotionally elsewhere, by letting headlines, emails, and tweets draw us to favor our phones over our kids, for instance. Love grows best when you’re attuned to the present moment, your bodily sensations, as well as to the actions and reactions of others. Sadly, when you’re more attuned to technology, to-do lists, and mass media than to the unique and wondrous individuals in your day, you miss out.

The View from Here

Ultimately, love springs up anytime any two or more people connect over a shared positive emotion. What does it mean, then, to say that I love my husband, Jeff? It used to mean that 18 plus years ago, I fell in love with him, so much so that I abandoned my crusty attitude toward marriage and chose to dive right in. I used to uphold love as that constant, steady force that defines my relationship with Jeff. Of course, that constant, steady force still exists between us. Yet upgrading my vision of love, I now see that steady force, not as love per se, but as the bond he and I share, and the commitments we two have made to each other, to be loyal and trusting to the end.

That bond and these commitments forge a deep and abiding sense of safety within our relationship, a safety that tills the soil for frequent moments of love. Knowing now that, from our bodies’ perspective, love is positivity resonance—nutrient-rich bursts that accrue to make Jeff, me, and the bond we share healthier—shakes us out of any complacency that tempts us to take our love for granted, as a mere attribute of our relationship. Love, this new view tells us with some urgency, is something we should recultivate every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. Seeing love as positivity resonance motivates us to reach out for a hug more often or share an inspiring or silly idea or image over breakfast. In these small ways, we plant additional seeds of love that help our bodies, our well-being, and our marriage to grow stronger.

And here’s something that’s hard to admit: if I take my body’s perspective on love seriously, it means that right now—at this very moment in which I’m crafting this sentence—I do not love my husband. Our positivity resonance, after all, only lasts as long as we two are engaged with each other. Bonds last. Love doesn’t. The same goes for you and your loved ones. Unless you’re cuddled up with someone reading these words aloud to him or her, right now, as far as your body knows, you don’t love anyone. Of course, you have affection for many people, and bonds with a subset of them, and you may even be experiencing strong feelings of positivity now that will prime the pump for later, bona fide, and bodily felt love. But right now—within this very moment that you’re reading this sentence—your body is loveless.

Moreover, love, as you’ve seen, obeys conditions. If you feel unsafe, or fail to find the time or contexts to truly connect with others, the delicate pas de deux of positivity resonance won’t commence. Beyond these obstacles, something more insidious may also be barring you from love. It’s your reaction to the L-word itself. Although you may be intrigued by the concept of positivity resonance, when it really comes down to it, you might hesitate to call that feeling love. You’d rather reserve this powerful word for your exclusive relationships—to describe your relationship to your spouse, your mother, or your kids—or at most for the micromoments of positivity resonance you experience within those exclusive relationships. Some of my descriptions of love may have even drawn you to balk: do I really need to call that moment of positive connection I just had with my coworker love? Was that love I just felt when I shared a smile with a complete stranger? Using the L-word to describe these sorts of connections makes you uneasy, uncomfortable. You’d prefer not to see them that way. Why not just say that you “got along” or “enjoyed each other’s company”? Does it really do any good to call this nonexclusive stuff love?

Obviously, I think it does. The scientific understanding of love and its benefits offers you a completely fresh set of lenses through which to see your world and your prospects for health, happiness, and spiritual wisdom. Through these new lenses you see things that you were blind to before. Ordinary, everyday exchanges with colleagues and strangers now light up and call out to you as opportunities—life-giving opportunities for connection, growth, and health, your own and theirs. You can also see for the first time how micromoments of love carry irrepressible ripple effects across whole social networks, helping each person who experiences positivity resonance to grow and in turn touch and uplift the lives of countless others. These new lenses even change the way you see your more intimate relationships with family and friends. You now also see the rivers of missed opportunities for the true love of positivity resonance. You now know how to connect to and love these cherished people in your life more and better. Viewing love as distinct from long-standing relationships is especially vital as people increasingly face repeated geographical relocations that distance families and friends. Falling in love within smaller moments and with a greater variety of people gives new hope to the lonely and isolated among us. Love, I hope you see, bears upgrading.

I’m not worried about any surface resistance to using the L-word. The terminology you use isn’t what matters. What matters is that you recognize positivity resonance when it happens as well as the abundant opportunities for it, and that, more and more frequently, you seek it out.

From LOVE 2.0 by Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Barbara L. Fredrickson, 2013.

Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina. She’s the author of Love 2.0 and Positivity. Contact:

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  • 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.