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.”