What is Love?

Redefining the Most Powerful Emotion

Barbara Fredrickson

Frederickson_opener-smAs 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.

Read Symposium 2014 presenter Barbara Fredrickson's complete article, “What Is This Thing Called Love? A Whole New Way of Looking at It,” in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

Topic: Mind/Body

Tags: emotion | love and relationships | mind and body

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014 9:23:11 PM | posted by Jan Silverio
I agree that "love is connection" and wonder if the strong connection felt when providing/receiving support through the grieving process is another instance when love can be felt.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 11:09:27 PM | posted by Larry Holman
I too like the way this is framed. At the moment you make the connection, you feel "love" or "loved". I think this is a good way to describe it to clients who often don't think they have to do anything to feel love.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 3:43:54 PM | posted by James Thomas
As an E.F.T. Couples therapist and in my own personal experience, this framing of love as an emotional response to connection resonates. Whether we discover that love is a distinct emotion or a conglomerate of other primary emotions, this way of looking at it has meaning and utility.