What Is Love, Anyway?

In her new book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers a radically new conception of love.

Fredrickson, a 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; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.

So what is love? Using Fredrickson’s research, this is the question that I (try to) answer in my latest piece, “There’s No Such Thing as Everlasting Love”:

Rather, it is what she calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in “It’s a Wonderful World” when he sang, “I see friends shaking hands, sayin ‘how do you do?’ / They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you.’”

Fredrickson uses biology and psychology to show that there is no such thing as everlasting love. Rather, mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone all work together to create these micro-moments of love.

Though the science and the studies that she writes about (and that I summarize) are fascinating, what’s even more interesting are the cultural implications. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, many Americans are facing a grim reality–they are love-starved:

Rates of loneliness are on the rise as social supports are disintegrating. In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Americans on the number of confidants they have in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, when the survey was given again, the most common response was zero.

Though Fredrickson’s ideas about love are not exactly the stuff of romantic comedies, by lowering cultural expectations about love she is making love more accessible to the average person. Our cultural expectations are so misguidedly high today that they have inflated love into something that it isn’t, and into something that no sane person could actually experience. Fredrickson tells me, “I love the idea that it lowers the bar of love. If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love. It puts love much more in our reach everyday regardless of our relationship status.”

  1. Frank Soto
    C

    Any description of love that characterizes it as solely emotional is nearly worthless.  We have numerous other words to describe the feelings Barbara Fredrickson is talking about.

    Love doesn’t exist to make us feel awesome, love exist to make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do.  To sacrifice for a person in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t.  Without such sacrifices there is no love.  Just fleeting “Positive emotions”.  

    In fact love is as likely to make you feel bad as it is to make you feel good.  An obvious example is a child who is addicted to drugs.  If it’s not your child, you will likely feel very little in regards to them.  If it’s your child, your love for them is going to make you feel like crap.  It’s also going to make you more likely to endure great sacrifices to help them.

    I don’t like this way of framing love as something that should be making you feel warm and fuzzy all of the time.  It’s supposed to make you a better person.  

  2. doc molloy

    But but where does Ridge and Brooke aka Logan fit into the picture? I can’t give you anything but love, baby.. Take it Ella

    Here’s another take on love in Bringing up baby .. ain’t life grand.

  3. skipsul

    From another context:

    He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom. – JRR Tolkien, Gandalf speaking to Saruman

    The incessant attempts to over-analyze and break down all aspects of being human is worrisome.  Can we disassemble Love that we might re-assemble it elsewhere or manufacture it?

    Love is more than its constituent parts:

    Fredrickson uses biology and psychology to show that there is no such thing as everlasting love. Rather, mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone all work together to create these micro-moments of love.

    This reads like someone who can’t see the forest for the leaves on the trees.  

    Certainly “Romantic Love” as promulgated by Hollywood and many Harlequin or even highbrow novels is warped, and Fredrickson seems to have the laudable goal of puncturing that illusion.  But to “Lower the Bar” on Love is to sell it cheap.

    It puts love much more in our reach everyday regardless of our relationship status

    Love is not out of reach for any of us, but it does require work.  This just seems another way of building self esteem.

  4. Crow

    My favorite line might be this one:

    Rather, it is what she calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.”

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day/

    But thou art a micro-moment of positivity resonance….

  5. tabula rasa
    Emily Esfahani Smith: Fredrickson tells me, “I love the idea that it lowers the bar of love. If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love. It puts love much more in our reach everyday regardless of our relationship status.” · · 1 hour ago

    Help me out here.  Does this mean that we can now call raw sexual attraction love?

    Thus, the frat boy who sleeps with as many women as possible gets to experience the “warm glow” of love each time he has a one night stand (never mind that he doesn’t bother to find out the woman’s name).  And the woman gets to call it love too (never mind that he never calls her again).

    This sounds like dumbing-down a test so that everyone can pass.

    Tell me again what her point is?

  6. tabula rasa
    Crow’s Nest: My favorite line might be this one:

    Rather, it is what she calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.”

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day/

    But thou art a micro-moment of positivity resonance…. · 7 minutes ago

    And I suppose history’s great couples like Dido and Aeneas get a full “moment” (as opposed to a measly “micro-moment”) of positivity resonance.

  7. Schrodinger

    I just have one thing to say to Ms. Fredrickson:

     

    I want a new drug One that won’t make me sick One that won’t make me crash my car Or make me feel three feet thick I want a new drug One that won’t hurt my head One that won’t make my mouth too dry Or make my eyes too red I want a new drug One that does what it should One that won’t make me feel too bad One that won’t make me feel too good I want a new drug One with no doubt One that won’t make me talk too much Or make my face break out One that won’t make me nervous Wonderin’ what to do One that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you When I’m alone with you All alone with you All alone with you, yea, yea

     

    Huey Lewis and The News

     
  8. skipsul
    Schrodinger’s Cat: I just have one thing to say to Ms. Fredrickson:

     

    I want a new drug One that won’t make me sick One that won’t make me crash my car Or make me feel three feet thick I want a new drug One that won’t hurt my head One that won’t make my mouth too dry Or make my eyes too red I want a new drug One that does what it should One that won’t make me feel too bad One that won’t make me feel too good I want a new drug One with no doubt One that won’t make me talk too much Or make my face break out One that won’t make me nervous Wonderin’ what to do One that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you When I’m alone with you All alone with you All alone with you, yea, yea

     

    Huey Lewis and The News

     

    0 minutes ago

    I preferred the Weird Al Version:  I Want A New Duck

  9. Astonishing

     

    Emily Esfahani Smith:. . . Fredrickson . . . presents scientific evidence . . .  mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone all work together to create these micro-moments of love. . .

    This is another example of modernity’s misplaced faith in science.

    I do not claim that science produces no knowledge. But Emily’s post shows hows helpless, how ridiculous, science becomes when it attempts to apply its method to questions not appropriate to it.

    Love is an activity of the soul. The soul and love are beyond the reach of science. So, instead of describing love, science describes a set of physical phenomena (electrochemical reactions and the observable anatomical effects thereof) and mistakes those physical phenomena for love itself.

    Mistaken (misplaced) belief in a scientific description of love dehumanizes love. Most of us understand this very easily, very deeply, in the blink of an eye, when we reflect upon our own most profound human experiences: very few of us have had our souls hollowed out so thoroughly by modernity, as to accept that our mother’s love for us or our love for our children is nothing more than a transient electrochemical reaction.

    Science teaches little about human things: love, friendship, honor, faith, courage . . . .

  10. Misthiocracy

    I’ve long subscribed to the definition: “Love is when the happiness and wellbeing of another person is a precondition for one’s own.”

  11. doc molloy

    Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it..

  12. tabula rasa
    doc molloy: Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it.. · 8 minutes ago

    Here’s a different view.  My Dad taught me that the wise say they’re sorry, sometimes even before they are completely convinced that they’re sorry.   It’s been good advice for me.  Saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are good lubrication for a marriage.

  13. doc molloy
    tabula rasa

    doc molloy: Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it.. · 8 minutes ago

    Here’s a different view.  My Dad taught me that the wise say they’re sorry, sometimes even before they are completely convinced that they’re sorry.   It’s been good advice for me.  Saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are good lubrication for a marriage. · 21 minutes ago

    It was being facetious, remember this..  syrupy as all get out!

    And we won’t even go near The Way We Were!!

  14. tabula rasa
    doc molloy

    tabula rasa

    doc molloy: Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it.. · 8 minutes ago

    Here’s a different view.  My Dad taught me that the wise say they’re sorry, sometimes even before they are completely convinced that they’re sorry.   It’s been good advice for me.  Saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are good lubrication for a marriage. · 21 minutes ago

    It was being facetious, remember this..  syrupy as all get out!

    And we won’t even go near The Way We Were!! · 5 minutes ago

    I thought you were being ironical (do we need an irony emoticon?)  Ali McGraw was nice to look at, but a very, very bad actress.

  15. doc molloy
    tabula rasa

    doc molloy

    tabula rasa

    doc molloy: Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it.. · 8 minutes ago

    Here’s a different view.  My Dad taught me that the wise say they’re sorry, sometimes even before they are completely convinced that they’re sorry.   It’s been good advice for me.  Saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are good lubrication for a marriage. · 21 minutes ago

    It was being facetious, remember this..  syrupy as all get out!

    And we won’t even go near The Way We Were!! · 5 minutes ago

    I thought you were being ironical (do we need an irony emoticon?)  Ali McGraw was nice to look at, but a very, very bad actress. · 4 minutes ago

    Pardon that emoticon.. to paraphrase a lyric..

  16. Misthiocracy
    doc molloy

    tabula rasa

    doc molloy

    tabula rasa

    doc molloy: Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it.. · 8 minutes ago

    Here’s a different view.  My Dad taught me that the wise say they’re sorry, sometimes even before they are completely convinced that they’re sorry.   It’s been good advice for me.  Saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are good lubrication for a marriage. · 21 minutes ago

    It was being facetious, remember this..  syrupy as all get out!

    And we won’t even go near The Way We Were!! · 5 minutes ago

    I thought you were being ironical (do we need an irony emoticon?)  Ali McGraw was nice to look at, but a very, very bad actress. · 4 minutes ago

    Pardon that emoticon.. to paraphrase a lyric.. · 28 minutes ago

    Love means never having to emoticon a winky-face?

  17. Ansonia

    35 years ago, someone told me love was the willing devotion of the lover to the best interests of the beloved. The person said that was what St Thomas Aquinas meant. No?

  18. Bye!
     But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in “It’s a Wonderful World” when he sang, “I see friends shaking hands, sayin ‘how do you do?’ / They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you.’”

    That is not the message of that lyric, in fact, it’s the opposite. Armstrong was not singing of the momentary, he was speaking of the deeper, lasting meaning of the connection between friends. Notice the word “friends” in the lyric, not strangers. He was elevating friendship, not reducing love. He was drawing attention to the often unstated (and real) love that expresses itself through small talk and idle chit-chat, rather than the words “I love you”. You know, all that imaginary stuff that doesn’t happen with a Facebook ‘like’. Leave it to an Acculturated author to analyze-away the deeper meaning and demonstrate that Western culture has fallen even further than I thought. Ms. Smith, apparently you don’t know what you’re missing.
  19. Innocent Smith
    tabula rasa

    doc molloy

    tabula rasa

    doc molloy: Dare I say it.. Love is never having to say you’re sorry.. There I said it.. · 8 minutes ago

    Here’s a different view.  My Dad taught me that the wise say they’re sorry, sometimes even before they are completely convinced that they’re sorry.   It’s been good advice for me.  Saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are good lubrication for a marriage. · 21 minutes ago

    It was being facetious, remember this..  syrupy as all get out!

    And we won’t even go near The Way We Were!! · 5 minutes ago

    I thought you were being ironical (do we need an irony emoticon?)  Ali McGraw was nice to look at, but a very, very bad actress. · 4 hours ago

    I just quoted that to my wife, and she said “ali mcGraw – oh, yeah, love story.”  to which I replied, “no, Convoy.”

    There is the definition of love, Emily.

  20. Innocent Smith
    Misthiocracy: I’ve long subscribed to the definition: “Love is when the happiness and wellbeing of another person is a precondition for one’s own.” · 5 hours ago

    My dad said something similar on my wedding day:  “Learn to derive your pleasure from the pleasure you give to her.” 

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In