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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]

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