THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE - LOVE
This post is part of a series of posts written during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. To read the first post and for a little bit of context start here.
There is no other positive emotion that has as profound an impact on our life as love. For years, researchers have shied away from exploring this emperor among positive emotions. Daunted by its power and mystery, the impact of love on human life was left to the fearlessness of artists. But over the last decades, emboldened by new technologies that could solidify fuzzy, intangible emotions with the rigour and credibility of data and imaging, led by only a brave few then followed by an avalanche of those searching for answers, scientists have begun to unravel the mystery and shed light on the immense impact that this emotion has on every aspect of human life.
When we think of love, our minds naturally begin at romantic love. As we meditate on the thought a little longer, our understanding of the word expands to encompass our family and friends.
But if we want to truly understand the importance of love on every aspect of human life, fully grasp just why it is so essential that we cultivate it in the smallest moments of our every day, Barbara Frederickson’s book Love 2.0 offers the most broadening definition I have come across to date.
Love 2.0 was a book I read years ago that has had a lasting impact on the way I understand love and its impact on humanity. Going back over it I have been reminded of just how much this book has shaped my thinking. A powerful and beautiful explanation of love that stretches to include even the tiniest of moments with strangers, it illustrates why cultivating love is one of the most important practices we can invest our time into. At a time of immense change and uncertainty like the present moment, Frederickson’s deep understanding of this powerful emotion shines a light on how we can nurture it within our every day and expand our definition to include feelings towards more than just our nearest and dearest. This short summary does not do her incredible work justice. I urge you not to read this as a substitute for her book but as a small glimpse into the amazing insights that will change the way you think of love forever.
Most mammals show some signs of the importance of love for the survival of, at the very least, their offspring through the maternal bond. Many social animals such as elephants or some whale species show evidence that even when we are weary of anthropomorphising, are hard not to recognise as something that resembles our own feelings. And yet in spite of all of the evidence of love within the animal kingdom, at this point in our understanding, there is good reason to believe that we are the only species able to broaden our experience of love to include not just our kin but even acquaintances we have only just met. The expansiveness of our ability to love, it would seem, is a very human quality. I feel this is something to be proud of.
Frederickson points out that “love is our supreme emotion that makes us come most fully alive and feel most fully human. It is perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.” Love draws us out of our “cocoon of self-absorption” she explains and helps us to truly attune to others.
Frederickson explains that love has this incredible, expansive quality where the otherwise rigidly defined boundaries of ‘me’ and ‘not me’ become permeable. Love allows us to relax and expand our awareness as well as our sense of self. Love infuses our body and mind with a sense of connection and oneness. “While infused with love” Frederickson explains we “see fewer distinctions between [us] and others. Indeed, [our] ability to see others – really see them wholeheartedly - springs open.” The pinnacle of the feeling of love is this beautiful sense of transcendence that dissolves the sense of self, and in its place leaves the profound feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves.
Frederickson’s research has led her to an understanding of love that is far more expansive than what most of us would commonly allow to fall under its definition. She points out that among human beings, small moments of genuine love are not reserved merely for romantic partners or even friends and family but can blossom between anyone at any time, even two strangers who are interacting for the very first time. Her research redefines love as the “momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between [us] and another; second a synchrony between [us] and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviours; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.” She combines this definition of love into a term she coins positivity resonance and explains that it can spring up any time, between anyone who connects over shared positive emotion.
When we experience positivity resonance, we literally synchronise with the person we are sharing the positive emotions with. Our respective brainwaves mirror one another as our brains synchronise and each person, moment by moment shapes the other person’s mind.
Frederickson explains that understanding love in terms of the interplay of shared positive emotions, biochemical and behavioural synchrony and shared motives for each other’s wellbeing (i.e. positivity resonance) has allowed her to appreciate her own relationships in a new way. She points out that where before she thought of love as the “constant, steady force” that defined her relationship with her husband, she now understands that it is the work of cultivating positivity resonances that creates and renews their love both within the every day and throughout their life together. “Knowing now that, from our bodies’ perspective love is positivity resonance – nutrient-rich bursts that accrue to make [my husband], me, and the bond we share healthier – shakes us out of any complacency that tempts us to take our love for granted, as a mere attribute of our relationship.” Instead, this understanding of love motivates both of them to work hard to cultivate those small moments of love and positivity that allow their brains, bodies and minds to synchronise and connect on a regular basis.
Crucially, Frederickson’s work draws our attention to the fact that “positivity resonance doesn’t spring up at random. It emerges within certain circumstance, stemming from particular patterns of thought and action. These are love’s bedrock prerequisites…The more trusting and open [we] are with someone else – and the more trusting and open that person is with [us] – the more points of connection each of [us] may find over which to share a laugh, or common source of intrigue, serenity or delight.”
By choosing to cultivate moments of positivity resonance, those small moments of love, with our family, friends, communities and even strangers we can positively impact our own physical and mental wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of those we share these moments with. “Love” Frederickson explains “ripples out through space and time… Over time, these powerful moments change who [we] are. They help expand [our] network of relationships and grow [our] resilience, wisdom, and physical health…[Our] ability to understand and empathize with others depends mightily on having a steady diet of positivity resonance, as do [our] potentials for wisdom, spirituality, and health…These ripples don’t just affect [us]. They also affect the people with whom [we] share [our] moments of positivity resonance. So as [we] upgrade [our] view of love and learn to cultivate more micro-moments of it, [we] not only get the benefits, [we] give the benefits. This repeated back-and-forth sharing, however small or subtle, helps establish and strengthen healthy communities and cultures.”
Frederickson’s beautiful illumination of love shows us that love is both simpler and more profound than we acknowledge in much of our day to day lives. While at first glance, her insights show us that love, whether between lifelong partners or complete strangers, is flattened into the same simple set of interwoven events that occur during positivity resonance, this flattening also blows our opportunities to experience and share micro-moments of love wide open. The opportunities to cultivate small moments of love are in plain sight within our every day and ultimately prove themselves to be the lifeblood of human thriving.
In these incredibly challenging times we are all facing, her insights carry more meaning and have more weight than ever before:
“Resilience is not simply a property of individuals. It’s equally a property of social groups – of families, communities, nations, even the entire global community. Facing tough times together and well, requires precisely that suite of personal and collective resources that micro-moments of positivity resonance serve to build. Social resilience becomes all the more likely when [we] and those with whom [we] share [our] fate – at home, at work, or in [our] community or nation – are able and motivated to connect with one another, to take one another’s perspectives, and to communicate care and respect just as readily as [we] recognize it when others convey their positive regard to [us].”
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