What is Love?

It Exists in the Most Ordinary Places. Here's How to Find It

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.

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. But 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.

The Right Context for 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.

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.

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. Love, this new view tells us with some urgency, is something we should recultivate every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. Seeing love as this way 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 love, 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.

You’d rather reserve this powerful word, love, 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. 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. You now know how to connect to and love these cherished people in your life more and better. 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 the abundant opportunities for it, and that, more and more frequently, you seek it out.


This blog is excerpted from "What Is This Thing Called Love?" by Barbara Fredrickson. The full version is available in the January/February 2014 issue, Untangling Brain Science: Has It Lived Up to Its Promise for Therapists?

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Topic: Mind/Body

Tags: Barbara Fredrickson | connection | emotional connection | emotional intimacy | love | love and relationships | Mind/Body | Mindfulness | Authentic Happiness | Friendship | happiness | healthy relationships | marriage | marriage and family | Personal relationships | relationship | relationship issues | relationships | successful relationships

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Sunday, June 24, 2018 2:29:24 PM | posted by Natalie Tyler
This has been a very uplifting article for me. I now see that I can slow down & seek out moments of love throughout the day in my interactions with others. I must remember to be present in the moment & make eye contact, then flow can flow.

Saturday, November 12, 2016 11:11:11 PM | posted by Ron
Barbara Fredrickson is so much more radical than she may appear to many. All her talk of Love may seem nice, but she challenges so much in psychological theory and practice, like: showing how emotion is so dynamic, ever altering, ,not fixed by psychological terms like euthymic, depressed, etc. Emotion can be allowed as out of our control. And yet, we can know "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." I will continue to use her words and paradigms in sessions, as they allow for this transcendence.

Monday, March 21, 2016 11:33:02 AM | posted by lynn
are blog posts such at this sent directly to our emails or do we have to hunt them down or go to a blog site? Thanks

Saturday, March 19, 2016 5:35:24 PM | posted by ravi
Another attempt at defining love...The underlying assumption is that it is an emotion or feeling - when there is an ongoing debate about the meaning of emotion vs feeling. Then she goes on to say what gives rise to love and those factors/events/causes are what love means. It is the bind western science and psychologists face - even if they don't admit it - about the meaning of mind, cognition, emotions, feelings and the brain. Ravi