What Is This Thing Called Love?

A Whole New Way of Looking at It

Magazine Issue
January/February 2014
Hands holding each other

As you check out at the grocery store, you share a laugh with the cashier about the face you see peering up at you from the uncommonly gnarled potato in your basket. At work, you and your teammates celebrate a shared triumph with hugs and high fives. On your morning jog, you smile and nod to greet fellow runners and silently wish them a good day. After a trip that’s kept you apart for too many days, you share a long embrace with a family member. Can these everyday moments be called love? What exactly is love?

First and foremost, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. As with all positive emotions, the inner feeling it brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant—it feels extraordinarily good, the way a long, cool drink of water feels when you’re parched on a hot day. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micromoment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you—what lies beyond your skin—relax and become more permeable. While infused with love, you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others—really see them, wholeheartedly—springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.

Then, slowly, this expansive and transcendent feeling fades away, just like any other emotion, be it anger, joy, or sadness. However wondrous, feelings of love sweep through you for only a few moments. No emotion is built to last, not even the ones that feel so good. True, you can learn to coax your fleeting micromoments of love to linger with you a bit longer, and you can revive them later through conversation, but their duration is best measured in seconds or minutes, not months or years. Love is the ephemeral and precious openness you feel well up in your chest, not a rock-solid ring made of precious metal on your left hand.

The love I speak of here is also far from exclusive. It’s not just that unique feeling you reserve for your spouse or your romantic partner. It even extends beyond your warm feelings for your children, parents, or close friends. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection. It’s that poignant stretching of your heart that you feel when you gaze into a newborn’s eyes for the first time or share a farewell hug with a dear friend. It’s even the fondness and sense of shared purpose you might unexpectedly feel with a group of strangers who’ve come together to marvel at a hatching of sea turtles or cheer at a football game. The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people—even strangers—connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.

To put it in a nutshell, love is the 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.

My shorthand for this trio is positivity resonance. Within those moments of interpersonal connection that are characterized by this amplifying symphony—of shared positive emotions, biobehavioral synchrony, and mutual care—life-giving positivity resonates between and among people. This back-and-forth reverberation of positive energy sustains itself—and can even grow stronger—until the momentary connection wanes, which is of course inevitable, because that’s how emotions work.

I’ve come up with a visual metaphor for positivity resonance that likens it to a mirror. This seems apt because a moment of positivity resonance, by definition, involves considerable mirroring at three different levels: you and the other person mirror the positivity in each other’s emotional state; you mirror each other’s gestures and biochemistry; and you mirror each other’s impulse to care for one another. So in a moment of positivity resonance, to some extent, you each become the reflection and extension of the other. Sure enough, when you face a conventional mirror, you meet eyes only with yourself. Imagine, though, facing a mirror straight on and seeing this other person. Before this moment of positivity resonance, the two of you were off doing your own thing—feeling your own emotions, making your own moves, and following your own inclinations. But in this particular moment of connection, your respective feelings, actions, and impulses align and come into sync. For just a moment, you each become something larger than yourself. This is no ordinary moment. Within this mirrored reflection and extension of your own state, you see far more. A powerful back-and-forth union of energy springs up between the two of you, like an electric charge.

Ordinary positive emotions don’t resonate like this at all. They’re not mirrored back to you. Although the warmth of any positive emotion stretches your mind and spurs you to grow in ways that leave you more resourceful and resilient than before, only love creates such a deep interpersonal resonance. That’s because within micromoments of love, your own positivity, your own warmth and openness, evoke—and is simultaneously evoked by—the warmth and openness emanating from the other person. This shared positivity gets further amplified by the synchronized changes in biochemistry that course through your bodies and the attention you each show the other—the smiles, the leaning in, your verbal and nonverbal expressions of care and concern for each other. These are powerful, energizing moments. Your body was designed to harness this power—to live off it. Your ability to understand and empathize with others depends mightily on having a steady diet of positivity resonance, as do your potentials for wisdom, spirituality, and health.

Odds are, if you were raised in a Western culture, you think of emotions as largely private events. You locate them within a person’s boundaries, confined within their mind and skin. When conversing about emotions, your use of singular possessive adjectives betrays this point of view: you refer to “my anxiety,” “his anger,” or “her interest.” Following this logic, love would seem to belong to the person who feels it. Defining love as positivity resonance challenges this view. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people—within interpersonal transactions—and thereby belongs to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. Love alters the unseen activity within your body and brain in ways that trigger parallel changes within another person’s body and brain. More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections. It extends beyond personal boundaries to characterize the vibe that pulsates between and among people. It can even energize whole social networks or inspire a crowd to get up and dance.

The Right Context for Connection

Positivity resonance doesn’t spring up at random. It emerges within certain circumstances, stemming from particular patterns of thought and action. These are love’s bedrock prerequisites. The first precondition is a perception of safety. If you assess your current circumstances as threatening or dangerous in any way, love isn’t a possibility for you at that moment. Indeed, your brain has been shaped by the forces of natural selection to be exquisitely attuned to threats. Your innate threat-detection system even operates outside your conscious awareness. You could be engrossed in conversation, or enjoying a blissful run in the woods, for instance, and still instantaneously spot that writhing snake on your path. Although true threats are rare, not everyone can trust the world this way. People who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even loneliness or low self-esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly, this overalert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance.

Love’s second precondition is connection, true sensory and temporal connection with another living being. You no doubt try to “stay connected” when physical distance keeps you and your loved ones apart. You use the phone, email, and increasingly texts or Facebook, and it’s important to do so. Yet your body, sculpted by the forces of natural selection over millennia, wasn’t designed for the abstractions of long-distance love, the XOXOs and LOLs. It hungers for more. It hungers for moments of oneness.

Feelings of oneness surface when two or more people “sync up” and come to act as one. You can sync up like this with a stranger just as you can with a lifelong companion. When positivity resonance moves between you and another, the two of you begin to mirror each other’s postures and gestures, and even finish each other’s sentences. When you especially resonate with someone else—even if you’ve just met—the two of you are quite literally on the same wavelength, biologically. Synchrony also unfolds internally, as your physiological responses—in both body and brain—mirror each other as well.

Thus, true connection is a prime reason that love isn’t unconditional, but instead requires a particular stance. Neither abstract nor mediated, true connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires a co-presence of bodies, and the main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact. Other forms of real-time sensory contact—through touch, voice, or mirrored body postures and gestures—no doubt connect people as well and, at times, can substitute for eye contact. Nevertheless, eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness.

A smile, more so than any other emotional expression, pops out and draws your eye. That’s a good thing, too, because a smile can mean so many different things. Why, for instance, is your new coworker suddenly smiling at you? Is she being sincere or smug? Friendly or self-absorbed? Caring or just polite? Considering that Paul Ekman, the world’s leading scientist of human facial expressions, estimates that humans regularly use some 50 different types of smiles, the ambiguity of any given smile becomes more understandable. Plus, the differences between different types of smiles—a friendly smile, an enjoyment smile, a domineering smile, even a fake smile—can be subtle. Whereas scientists like Ekman use slow-motion video capture to detect those subtle differences, all you have are your gut feelings to figure out what your coworker’s smile really means. Yet those gut feelings can be a powerful source of intuition and wisdom if you know how best to access them. Eye contact, it turns out, is crucial. New scientific evidence suggests that if you don’t make direct eye contact with your coworker, you’re at a distinct disadvantage in trying to figure out what she really feels or means.

Eye contact is the key that unlocks the wisdom of your intuitions because when you meet your smiling coworker’s gaze, her smile triggers activity within your own brain circuitry that allows you to simulate—within your own brain, face, and body—the emotions you see emanating from hers. You now know, through this rapid and nonconscious simulation, more about what it feels like to have smiled like that. Access to this embodied feeling actually makes you wiser. You become more accurate, for instance, at discerning what her unexpected smile means. You’re more attuned, less gullible. You intuitively grasp her intentions. She wasn’t being friendly after all; she was gloating. You don’t need to be a cynic to recognize that not all smiles are sincere bids for connection. Some smiles may even be flashed to exploit or control you. Just as you rely on your senses to discern nutritious from rotting food, so, too, can you rely on your senses to help you separate the honest from dishonest invitations for connection.

Once you’ve made eye contact, your conclusions about your coworker’s smile, conscious or not, inform your gut and your next move. Without eye contact, it’s much easier to experience misunderstandings, crushed hearts, and exploitation as you over- or under-interpret the friendliness of other people’s smiles. You can also miss countless opportunities for life-giving connection. Eye contact helps you better detect the sincere affiliative gestures within a sea of merely polite or decidedly manipulative smiles that bid for your attention. Love, then, is not blind.

Moments of seemingly shared positivity abound. You, and those in your midst, can be infused with one form of positivity or another, yet not be truly connected. You and everyone else in the movie theater, for instance, share the positivity emanating from the big screen; you and the person next to you in the lecture hall are fascinated by the same set of new ideas; 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’re not (yet) directly and interpersonally shared experiences, they don’t resonate or reverberate, and so they’re not (yet) instances of love. The key to love is to add some form of physical connection.

To be clear, the sensory and temporal connections you establish with others through eye contact, touch, conversation, or other forms of behavioral synchrony are not, in and of themselves, love. Even holding hands, after all, can become a loveless habit. Yet in the right contexts, these gestures become springboards for love. The right contexts are those infused with the emotional presence of positivity.

Love, then, requires connection. This means that when you’re alone, thinking about those you love, reflecting on past loving connections, yearning for more, or even when you’re practicing loving-kindness meditation or writing an impassioned love letter, you’re not in that moment experiencing true love. It’s true that the strong feelings you experience when by yourself are important and absolutely vital to your health and well-being. But they’re not (yet) shared, and so they lack the critical and undeniably physical ingredient of resonance. Physical presence is key to love, to positivity resonance.

The problem is that all too often, you simply don’t take the time that’s needed to truly connect with others. To the contrary, contemporary society, with its fast-changing technology and oppressive workloads, baits you to speed through your day at a pace that’s completely antithetical to connection. Feeling pressured to accomplish more each day, you multitask just to stay afloat. Any given moment finds you plotting your next move. What’s next on your never-ending to-do list? What do you need and from whom? Increasingly, you converse with others through emails, texts, tweets, and other ways that don’t require speaking, let alone seeing one another. Yet these can’t fulfill your body’s craving for connection. Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present. It also requires that you slow down.

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, my husband or I would slowly pace across the nursery, holding him in our arms, for up to 30 minutes or more. He trained us well. We learned that we could place him in his crib only 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 email, or collapse into our own bed. 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 moments. 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’d walked him to sleep, at first we weren’t also emotionally present. I have no doubts that infants can pick up on mismatches between their parents’ outward actions and inner experiences. In our case, this mismatch had initially prevented the joys and benefits of cross-generational positivity resonance from emerging.

Our boys are now nine and twelve, and their bedtime rituals have changed accordingly. Yet it strikes me that, living less than a mile from our kids’ school, my husband and I still have the same opportunity for a walking connection with our kids each day. Yet in the mad dash to get the kids to school on time each weekday, it’s easy to find any excuse to drive. We all know the virtues of walking. It’s good for our bodies, our brains, as well as the environment. What often goes unrecognized, however, is the good it does for our relationships. It offers up the time, physical copresence, and shared movements to satisfy our and our kids’ daily craving for connection. Of course, we can still spoil this chance by being mentally and emotionally elsewhere, by letting headlines, emails, and tweets draw us to favor our phones over our kids, for instance. Love grows best when you’re attuned to the present moment, your bodily sensations, as well as to the actions and reactions of others. Sadly, when you’re more attuned to technology, to-do lists, and mass media than to the unique and wondrous individuals in your day, you miss out.

The View from Here

Ultimately, love springs up anytime any two or more people connect over a shared positive emotion. What does it mean, then, to say that I love my husband, Jeff? It used to mean that 18 plus years ago, I fell in love with him, so much so that I abandoned my crusty attitude toward marriage and chose to dive right in. I used to uphold love as that constant, steady force that defines my relationship with Jeff. Of course, that constant, steady force still exists between us. Yet upgrading my vision of love, I now see that steady force, not as love per se, but as the bond he and I share, and the commitments we two have made to each other, to be loyal and trusting to the end.

That bond and these commitments forge a deep and abiding sense of safety within our relationship, a safety that tills the soil for frequent moments of love. Knowing now that, from our bodies’ perspective, love is positivity resonance—nutrient-rich bursts that accrue to make Jeff, 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. Love, this new view tells us with some urgency, is something we should recultivate every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. Seeing love as positivity resonance motivates us to reach out for a hug more often or share an inspiring or silly idea or image over breakfast. In these small ways, we plant additional seeds of love that help our bodies, our well-being, and our marriage to grow stronger.

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 people, and bonds with a subset of them, 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’re reading this sentence—your body is loveless.

Moreover, love, as you’ve seen, obeys conditions. If you feel unsafe, or fail to find the time or contexts to truly connect with others, the delicate pas de deux of positivity resonance won’t commence. Beyond these obstacles, something more insidious may also be barring you from love. It’s your reaction to the L-word itself. Although you may be intrigued by the concept of positivity resonance, when it really comes down to it, you might hesitate to call that feeling love. You’d rather reserve this powerful word for your exclusive relationships—to describe your relationship to your spouse, your mother, or your kids—or at most for the micromoments of positivity resonance you experience within those exclusive relationships. Some of my descriptions of love may have even drawn you to balk: do I really need to call that moment of positive connection I just had with my coworker love? Was that love I just felt when I shared a smile with a complete stranger? Using the L-word to describe these sorts of connections makes you uneasy, uncomfortable. You’d prefer not to see them that way. Why not just say that you “got along” or “enjoyed each other’s company”? Does it really do any good to call this nonexclusive stuff love?

Obviously, I think it does. The scientific understanding of love and its benefits offers you a completely fresh set of lenses through which to see your world and your prospects for health, happiness, and spiritual wisdom. Through these new lenses you see things that you were blind to before. Ordinary, everyday exchanges with colleagues and strangers now light up and call out to you as opportunities—life-giving opportunities for connection, growth, and health, your own and theirs. You can also see for the first time how micromoments of love carry irrepressible ripple effects across whole social networks, helping each person who experiences positivity resonance to grow and in turn touch and uplift the lives of countless others. These new lenses even change the way you see your more intimate relationships with family and friends. You now also see the rivers of missed opportunities for the true love of positivity resonance. You now know how to connect to and love these cherished people in your life more and better. 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. Love, I hope you see, bears upgrading.

I’m not worried about any surface resistance to using the L-word. The terminology you use isn’t what matters. What matters is that you recognize positivity resonance when it happens as well as the abundant opportunities for it, and that, more and more frequently, you seek it out.


From LOVE 2.0 by Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Barbara L. Fredrickson, 2013.


Photo © Troels Graugaard / Getty Images

Barbara Fredrickson

University of North Carolina psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson is a leader in researching the impact of positive emotion in transforming our mind, body, and ability to bounce back from hard times. Her national bestseller Positivity documented the evidence showing how positive emotions enhance creativity, inventiveness, and big-picture perceptual focus.

Her book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, challenges our limiting notions of love as defined by romance and marriage. The premise of her book is that even the most fleeting everyday moments of positive emotion set off a chain reaction of biological events that can have a critical impact on our overall emotional and physical health.