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June 2015

On Giving

The next time you need to buy a present for someone, and have absolutely no idea what to get them, consider this advice from David Whyte, offered in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"Giving that is… automatic, chore-based, walking round the mall-based, exhausts us, debilitates us, and in the end is quite often subtly insulting to the one whom we eventually give the random item.

Better to spend a long time sitting in our armchairs in silent contemplation of those we want to gift, looking for the imaginative doorway that says I know you and see you and this is how I give thanks for you, which may bring us to the perfect objet but also may bring us instead to write the short heartfelt message that acknowledges their place in our lives."

We are generally unaccustomed to telling others what we appreciate about them, however, and it can be hard to know what to say. For inspiration, look no further than the first book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Titled “Debts and Lessons”, it lists those whom the Roman Emperor felt contributed to his life, and why he was grateful for each of them. It’s an uplifting read.

If we can overcome our own discomfort at being so emotionally expressive, such a written message can be what Whyte considers the perfect gift:

"The full genius of gift giving is found when we give what a person does not fully feel they deserve, but that does not overstretch the point, it is the appropriate but surprising next step in their lives. It disarms and moves and empowers all at once while gratifying the one who gives beyond most everyday satisfactions."

Be Realistic

"When the wind's blowing at gale force, there's no point in sailing against it."

- Frank Underwood (House of Cards, season 3)

Barbara Fredrickson on Love

Love20In Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers a fresh paradigm of love as "micro-moments of positivity resonance".

"Forget about the love that you typically hear on the radio, the one that's centred on desire and yearns for touch from a new squeeze. Set aside the take on love your family might have offered you, one that requires that you love your relatives unconditionally, regardless of whether their actions disturb you, or their aloofness leaves you cold. Set aside your view of love as a special bond or relationship, be it with your spouse, partner or soul mate...

Love is not exclusive, not something to be reserved for your soul mate, your inner circle, your kin, or your so-called loved ones...

Love is not lasting. It's actually far more fleeting than most of us would care to acknowledge. On the upside, though, love is forever renewable..."

Instead, says Fredrickson:

"Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care... Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong."

She calls this "positivity resonance", in order to deliberately dissociate it from our  common preconceptions of what "love" means. (Fredrickson's book opens with an oh-so-true quote from Margaret Atwood: "The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love".)

What's unusual about this conception of love is (1) the idea that it can arise between any two people and (2) that love is not something that can exist solely in one person but that exists in the connection between them. Or as Fredrickson puts it:

"Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections."

In other words, unrequited love is not love at all.

Neither can love be unconditional. There are certain prerequisites that must be satisfied for it to occur. The first is a perception of safety, the second the existence of connection:

"True connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies... Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present."

So what's the difference between the love you feel for your partner and other kinds of love?

"At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance."

It's not just about the total number of micro-moments we experience in our closest relationships, however. When we deeply understand someone, and accept them for who they are, those moments get triggered more frequently:

"Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other...

Your intimates offer you history, safety, trust, and openness in addition to the frequent opportunity to connect. The more trusting and open you are with someone else— and the more trusting and open that person is with you— the more points of connection each of you may find over which to share a laugh, or a common source of intrigue, serenity, or delight."

Sharing an activity with someone can be a way to generate positivity resonance:

"Couples who regularly make time to do new and exciting things together— like hiking, skiing, dancing, or attending concerts and plays— have better- quality marriages. These activities provide a steady stream of shared micro-moments of positivity resonance."

However, some shared activities may generate positivity, but not love. For example:

"You and your family members take in the same television comedy. Yet absent eye contact, touch, laughter, or another form of behavioral synchrony, these moments are akin to what developmental psychologists call parallel play. They no doubt feel great and their positivity confers broaden-and-build benefits both to you and to others, independently. But if they are not (yet) directly and interpersonally shared experiences, they do not resonate or reverberate, and so they are not (yet) instances of love. The key to love is to add some form of physical connection."

Fredrickson is unafraid to follow this line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion, carefully drawing a distinction between positivity, love and the bond of marriage:

"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 positivity resonance, 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, and bonds with a subset of these. 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 are reading this sentence— your body is loveless."

Nevertheless, Fredrickson's paradigm remains a uniquely liberating one:

"Viewing love as distinct from long-standing relationships is especially vital as people increasingly face repeated geographical relocations that distance families and friends. Falling in love within smaller moments and with a greater variety of people gives new hope to the lonely and isolated among us."

[First published 26 January 2015; updated 16 June 2015]

Mindful Parenting

As a parent, I've often felt the urge to rush through the bedtime ritual - dinner, baths, PJs, teeth, books - with my kids. The few precious hours after they're asleep are sometimes my only time to do chores and pursue personal interests. It's easy to become impatient when a protracted bedtime cuts into that.

In Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson shares a similar experience:

"My second-born was such a good sleeper that my husband or I could place him in his crib awake and he’d happily drift off to sleep all on his own. Our firstborn was altogether different. He needed to be in our arms while he drifted off. He also needed a particular motion, one that we couldn’t achieve in the comfort of a rocking chair, but only by walking. For at least the first year of his life, then, my husband or I would slowly pace across the tiny nursery, holding him in our arms, for up to thirty minutes or more. He trained us well. We learned that we could only place him in his crib after he’d succumbed to a deep sleep. Anything less would lead to another long bout of pacing.

With so many things to juggle as new parents, not to mention our own sleep deprivation, my husband and I began to dread the time-sink of this bedtime ritual. We’d yearn to be released from the shadowy nursery so that we could tackle the mounting dishes and laundry, make headway on a few more work projects by e-mail, or collapse into our own bed."

I had the same experience with both my children when they were babies. On several occasions I had to take my son out for a drive before he would finally fall asleep.

But like any stressful situation, it's not the situation itself that's difficult, it's the interpretation we choose to place on it.

"Then, my husband discovered a radical shift that changed everything. He gave up thinking about where else he could be and immersed himself in this parenting experience. He tuned in to our son’s heartbeat and breath. He appreciated his warmth, his weight in his arms, and the sweet smell of his skin. By doing so, he transformed a parental chore into a string of loving moment. When my husband shared his secret with me, we each not only enjoyed this bedtime ritual all the more, but our son also fell more swiftly into his deep sleep. Looking back, I now recognize that even though we were physically present with our son as we had walked him to sleep, at first we were not also emotionally present."

Instead of seeing bedtime as a chore, by choosing to exercise mindfulness Fredrickson and her husband turned it into an opportunity to connect with their child.