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.”

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Members have made 34 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Frank Soto Contributor

    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.

    • #1
    • January 25, 2013 at 11:54 am
  2. Profile photo of doc molloy Inactive

    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.

    • #2
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:14 am
  3. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator

    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.

    • #3
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:15 am
  4. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member

    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….

    • #4
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:22 am
  5. Profile photo of tabula rasa Member
    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?

    • #5
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:29 am
  6. Profile photo of tabula rasa Member
    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.

    • #6
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:33 am
  7. Profile photo of Schrodinger's Cat Inactive

    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 youAll alone with youAll alone with you, yea, yea

     

    Huey Lewis and The News

     
    • #7
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:49 am
  8. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    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 youAll alone with you, yea, yea

     

    Huey Lewis and The News

     

    0 minutes ago

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

    • #8
    • January 26, 2013 at 1:52 am
  9. Profile photo of Astonishing Inactive

     

    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 . . . .

    • #9
    • January 26, 2013 at 2:18 am
  10. Profile photo of Misthiocracy Member

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

    • #10
    • January 26, 2013 at 2:35 am
  11. Profile photo of doc molloy Inactive

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

    • #11
    • January 26, 2013 at 2:51 am
  12. Profile photo of tabula rasa Member
    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.

    • #12
    • January 26, 2013 at 3:03 am
  13. Profile photo of doc molloy Inactive
    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!!

    • #13
    • January 26, 2013 at 3:33 am
  14. Profile photo of tabula rasa Member
    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.

    • #14
    • January 26, 2013 at 3:41 am
  15. Profile photo of doc molloy Inactive
    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..

    • #15
    • January 26, 2013 at 3:49 am
  16. Profile photo of Misthiocracy Member
    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?

    • #16
    • January 26, 2013 at 4:29 am
  17. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    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?

    • #17
    • January 26, 2013 at 7:04 am
  18. Profile photo of Bye! Inactive
     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.
    • #18
    • January 26, 2013 at 7:29 am
  19. Profile photo of RyanM Coolidge
    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.

    • #19
    • January 26, 2013 at 7:51 am
  20. Profile photo of RyanM Coolidge
    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.”

    • #20
    • January 26, 2013 at 7:57 am
  21. Profile photo of Terry Riley Member

    Saint Thomas Aquinas said it best. “To love is to will the good of another.”

    • #21
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm
  22. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member

    Disregarding Haddaway for the moment (which, now that I’ve typed it, somehow sounds like the title of an obscure Woody Allen film), the Greeks were wiser than we are in dividing these “loves” by using separate words to describe them: philia, eros, agape, storge.

    But, really, progress people. Forward!

    • #22
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:14 pm
  23. Profile photo of katievs Member

    Great plan! Deny love is real, and nobody will suffer from not having it!

    • #23
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:22 pm
  24. Profile photo of katievs Member

    I have an 86 year old friend dying of cancer. You should see her eyes light up when she talks about her husband of 65 years.

    • #24
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:24 pm
  25. Profile photo of KC Mulville Member
    • The Greeks had several words for different kinds of “connections,” and that’s also reflected in CS Lewis’ The Four Loves
    • It’s no stunning revelation to notice that two people can make connections. But a spark is not a current. We reserve the word “love” for relationships, because relationships are chosen and maintained deliberately, by choice and consent. In fact, we don’t use the word “love” until the relationship proves durable. The other things, we consider “infatuations” and so on.
    • That’s when a connection becomes a commitment, and we reward that relationship with the prestigious title of love.

    Also, it’s important to make the distinction between an event versus the reaction to it.

    • For instance, if you sustain an injury, the injury triggers a flood of chemical alerts. You feel the pain through the chemicals, but the real problem is the injury. The pain will eventually fade. 
    • In the same way, when you make a connection with someone, you enjoy the flood of accompanying chemicals. But while the chemicals will fade, the real joy is the connection.

    Is love the connection, or the feeling that accompanies it? Most cultures choose the connection.

    • #25
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:28 pm
  26. Profile photo of RyanM Coolidge

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at – I 2nd Katie’s comment that this seems to be lowering the bar in order to allow more people to reach it. Love, to me, is something akin to “natural law,” or, what we daily experience being created in the image of God. Just as marriage and family, then church and community, are reflections of a God-Man relationship, so is love just a small piece of a larger reality. To describe love as a series of chemical reactions and electrical impulses is the same as claiming that there is no difference between humans and animals – in the end it is pointless. You don’t comfort a person who has become painfully aware of his own mortality (or is experiencing the death of a loved one) by saying that emotion is only electrical impulses … because while that is an interesting description of the mechanism, it is an inadequate description of the reality. Love is a ridiculously high bar, and one that we will never reach. I think it is worth-while to observe that what we define as love is often misguided – but your approach seems even worse.

    • #26
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm
  27. Profile photo of RyanM Coolidge
    katievs: I have an 86 year old friend dying of cancer. You should see her eyes light up when she talks about her husband of 65 years. · 7 minutes ago

    And when she dies, as I said, it will be of no comfort to her husband that all of that “love” was just electrical impulses. Better to think of love as the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion.

    • #27
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:35 pm
  28. Profile photo of Fricosis Guy Coolidge

    I’m on a business trip in weather 60 degrees warmer than home and I got a lump in my throat as I read this post and comments. I miss my wife muchly.

    • #28
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:38 pm
  29. Profile photo of Leigh Member

    That’s not a definition of love, it’s a definition of warm fuzzy feelings.

    Nothing against warm fuzzy feelings. They’re good things. They make life better and connect us to our fellow-man. They can brighten a lonely day like a ray of sunshine.

    But they’re not love in the deepest sense. True love isn’t a mere feeling — it’s a self-sacrificial commitment, not a chance happening, or something one falls “in” or “out” of.

    Much of the emptiness today comes from expecting that kind of love to happen instantaneously — from expecting the joy and beauty of it without the sacrifice and commitment and hard work. Not just in romantic relationships but in all family relationships, we expect it to just happen. And if it’s not, we think we can consider ourselves wronged and walk away.

    • #29
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:43 pm
  30. Profile photo of Crow's Nest Member
    KC Mulville
    • The Greeks had several words for different kinds of “connections,” and that’s also reflected in CS Lewis’ The Four Loves. 
    • It’s no stunning revelation to notice that two people can make connections. But a spark is not a current. We reserve the word “love” for relationships, because relationships are chosen and maintained deliberately, by choice and consent. In fact, we don’t use the word “love” until the relationship proves durable. The other things, we consider “infatuations” and so on.
    • That’s when a connection becomes a commitment, and we reward that relationship with the prestigious title of love.

    Yes, Frederickson’s claim is only stunning in its garishness, and in its illiteracy of the Western tradition.

    But, no worries, it is the perfect modern response. Love is being reified by the commercialization and hallmarkification of Valentine’s Day (me personally, I prefer Lupercalia, but to each his own) you say?–oh, dear me! We must democratize it!

    • #30
    • January 26, 2013 at 12:46 pm
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