We thrive when we express positive emotions for others and we flourish when we are on the receiving end of warm regard. The capacity to love and be loved is one of the 24 VIA character strengths that could bring us gratification and authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002). Love as a positive emotion and our ability to form relationships are central to the concept of flourishing when viewed from the perspective of PERMA. And that means feeling love as a positive emotion in relation to our self as well as others.
So how can we make sure we get all the benefits that lots of loving provides?
I’m going to look at three ways that we can love and be loved, loving ourselves from the position of self-compassion , being in a loving relationship with significant others and love as a micro moment we can experience daily with anyone, a universal experience that is a win-win situation.
When I refer to self-love I am not talking about self-esteem. When we are encouraged to view self-love as seeing ourselves as better than others, as comparing who we are and what we have, we are setting ourselves up to fail, to feel anything but self-love. But when we see it as self-compassion we are accepting all of who we are, warts and all.
Dr.Kristin Neff researches self-compassion, she advises that instead of heartlessly judging and criticizing ourselves we treat ourselves as we would a good friend, with kindness and acceptance. Neff divides self-compassion into three elements, self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
With self-kindness we are warm and thoughtful toward ourselves when we hurt, are unsuccessful, or feel insufficient, rather wallowing in self-criticism; we recognize that being flawed and inadequate, is unavoidable, so we are more likely to be gentle with ourselves when challenged with life instead of feeling annoyed when we don’t get it right. We can’t always be or get precisely what we want and denying this certainty, fighting against the reality, increases stress, frustration and self-criticism, accepting the inevitable with consideration and thoughtfulness makes us feel better. We have greater emotional stability, we can be in control.
All humans suffer, displeasure at not getting our own way is often compounded by an illogical but widespread sense of separation; no one else has to put up with this! However by the very definition of being “human” we are all vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion needs us to be aware that distress is part of the shared experience of being alive; common humanity highlights that this is something we all go through rather than something that happens just because I am “me”. When we view life from this position we can identify that our thoughts, feelings and actions are effected by “external” influences such as our history, culture, genes and the environment, as well as the actions and beliefs of others. Thich Nhat Hahn talks of a reciprocal cause and effect process in which we are all imbedded; when we recognise this ‘interbeing’ we can be less judgmental about our own imperfections. When we acknowledge our necessary interdependence we don’t take ‘life’ so personally.
Mindfulness encourages us to take a sensible attitude to all of our emotions in order that we neither repress nor inflate our feelings. We cannot disregard our discomfort and feel empathy for the hurt simultaneously, mindfulness necessitates that we don’t “over-identify” with thoughts and feelings, when we create a space we are not driven to rash action, we are we are in non-judgmental state of observation.
Details of all self-compasion exercises can be found at:
When we are able to accept ourselves with kindness, compassion and empathy we are more likely to be accepting of others and that is a healthy position from which to form long-lasting relationships based on love. And that that could come in handy as according to Harvard Psychiatrist Dr.George Vaillant we shouldn’t underestimate the power of love, because it's the key to happiness, he proposes two pillars of happiness: "One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away... Happiness is love. Full stop." He came to this conclusion based on evidence from the Grant Study, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development. The project, which began in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 79 years, measuring an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits—from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum”—in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.
Vaillant has said that the study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy (“Happiness is only the cart; love is the horse”).
“The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,” says Vaillant “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.”
So the study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction and as life goes on, connections become even more important. The Grant Study provides strong support for the growing body of research that has linked social ties with longevity, lower stress levels and improved overall well-being.
Knowing strong supportive meaningful relationships matter are one thing keeping them going is quite another. Despite high rates of divorce, infidelity and marital dissatisfaction, a 2012 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science 40 percent of couples who had been married for a decade reported they were “very intensely in love”, As did couples who were married 30 years or more with 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men saying they were “very intensely in love”.
In the Guardian this weekend there was a report on a couple who have been married 78 years. Morrie and Betty Markoff, 103 and 100, say that there’s no particular secret to their very long marriage, other than tolerance, respect and luck. But why has Morrie never told Betty that he loves her? Why not the word “love”? Morrie states that “to me, love is possessive; it’s controlling and demanding. The word that I would rather use instead is ‘caring’. You care about people. ‘Care’, to me, has a much deeper meaning. Love is an esoteric word, but one that people also use to mean all sorts of off-hand things. ‘I love playing tennis,’ and such. I hug Betty constantly, I kiss her constantly, I care very much about her.”
I wonder how their relationship would have matched up to research from the Gottman institute which shows that to make a relationship last, we need to be better friends, find a way to to manage conflict, and be creative to support each other’s dreams for the future. theDr. John Gottman has nine rules which he says support healthy relationships and are based upon empirical data from studies of more than 3,000 couples. This research shows what actually works to help couples achieve a long-term healthy relationship.
This is what we need to do:
· Build Love Maps:
How well do you know your partner’s inner emotional world, there history, fears, anxieties, thrills, and expectations? Well get out some coloured pens and a big sheet of paper and map them out. Together. For fun. And share.
· Share Fondness and Admiration:
Contempt is the death-knell of relationships, to strengthen fondness and admiration, express appreciation and respect.
· Turn Towards:
The small moments of everyday life are actually the building blocks of relationship. Be aware of the moments when someone wants your attention and respond to (turn towards) them..
· The Positive Perspective:
Look for solutions.
· Manage Conflict:
Manage conflict rather than “resolve” conflict, because relationship conflict is natural and has functional, positive aspects; there is a critical difference in handling continuous problems and solvable problems.
· Make Life Dreams Come True:
Create an atmosphere that encourages each person to talk honestly about his or her hopes, values, convictions and aspirations.
· Create Shared Meaning:
Understand important visions, narratives, myths, and metaphors about your relationship.
This is the state that occurs when a person knows that his or her partner acts and thinks to maximize that person’s best interests and benefits, not just the partner’s own interests and benefits. In other words, this means, “my partner has my back and is there for me.”
This means believing (and acting on the belief) that your relationship with this person is completely your lifelong journey, for better or for worse (meaning that if it gets worse you will both work to improve it). It implies cherishing your partner’s positive qualities and nurturing gratitude by comparing the partner favourably with real or imagined others, rather than trashing the partner by magnifying negative qualities, and nurturing resentment by comparing unfavourably with real or imagined others.
We seem to have greater expectations from our long-term relationships than our parents generations had; we want our relationships to help foster self-actualization and personal fulfilment whereas as in the past marriage was undertaken to provide for safety and security, and maybe sex on a Saturday if played your cards right. (OK so I know this is a cliché but that’s what my parents’ marriage was like). I wonder if this strain on an exclusive relationship to provide the environment for flourishing is actually that good for us? I prefer to give and get my love from a wide range of sources, which is where Barbara Frederickson’s take on love works for me.
Fredrickson thinks that we need to take the view that first and foremost, love is an emotion, a fleeting state that influences both our mind and body. Love, like all positive emotions, feels good. However it is more than feeling good, a micro-moment of love, as with other positive emotions, actually modifies our mind. It expands our awareness of environments, our sense of self and the borders between us melt away, bathed with love we see fewer differences between each other. In fact when we experience love as an emotion we connect with a sense of oneness that can induce transcendence…love is indeed a drug.
Fredrickson emphases the body’s perspective of love; when we have positive resonance, micro-moments of shared love, our physiology responds in very particular ways. She considers that love, as positivity resonance, is identical whether the instants occur between parent and child, friends, lovers, or total strangers. Fredrickson maintains that these micro-moments originate through the eyes leading to us to be in sync with others. This idea of synchrony is fundamental to understanding positivity resonance, Fredrickson uses three key standpoints to explain her theory; oxytocin stimulation, vagal tone, and mirror neurons, or what has been called “brain coupling.”
She cites research by Uri Hasson at Princeton and his colleagues, who examined people engaged in conversation while their brain activity was monitored by an fMRI. The research shows that when brains are in sync, the neural links allows us to truly comprehend another. This, (along with other studies) backs up positive resonance generating reciprocal empathy, leading to a commonly shared physical occurrence in the brain. So we sense our two brains as having one experience.
Fredrickson shows that people with higher vagal tone have more moments of positivity resonance. Briefly the vagus nerve connects our brain to our heart, it is involved in how we smile, make eye contact with others and monitors the middle ear muscles so we can focus on other voices.
Vagal tone is the link of the heart rate to the breathing rate so it stands to reason that the higher the vagal tone the better. People with more and better positive connections, are more loving and have high vagal tone. It used to be that vagal tone once was thought to be as stable as one’s height and couldn’t be changed, however Fredrickson’s research was able to prove that mind training can improve vagal tone. And it was done by practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM), the ancient Buddhist repetition of nurturing positive feelings toward the self and others.
In her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) lab she randomly assigned participants to take part in LKM for less than an hour a week. Their vagal tone compared to a control group climbed radically after a few months of daily practice. Those who had the largest increases in vagal tone had the most frequent positivity resonance experiences with others.
This is a radical research: Fredrickson establishes that love isn’t something we just fall into: We can intentionally create love.
She then adds oxytocin, “the great facilitator of life” due to its role in mother-infant bonding, social connection, and sex, into the research mix. Oxytocin is released during intensified engagement with others and is part of our “calm-and-connect” response. It makes us more trusting and open to others. When we are under the influence of oxytocin we pay more attention to people’s eyes, smiles and other cues that are associated with positive social connections, of course what this means is that positivity resonance lasts only as long as people are engaged. (This is similar to limbic resonance as described in A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, & Richard Lannon.)
Love, through this lens, is not just an emotion for soul-mates and family members, it is not to be saved for special occasions. Love like this can be shared several times a day with different people to cover the full gamut from the love of my life to strangers on the street. Fredrickson’s definition of a moment of love is thus “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 behaviours; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care” (Fredrickson 2013, p. 17). This habit of building and maintaining strong relationships, of cultivating micro-moments of positive resonance, can start intentionally but builds to become who you are, so that loving and being loved can indeed become a key strength in your value repertoire.
25 Barbara LOVE 2.0 facts
1. "...love, and its absence, fundamentally alters the biochemicals in which your body is steeped."
2. Love is a momentary state that can pass between strangers who share a mutually positive experience together.
3. Love is a skill that can be learned which impacts the expression of your genes.
4. "The sheer complexity of love's biology is reason enough for awe."
5. When you learn to prioritize love, you actually get more value from it and become resilient faster.
6. Love literally changes your mind and enables you to see others wholeheartedly, helping you transcend your usual ego perspective.
7. Love is the arising of three events: shared positive emotions, sychrony between you and another's biochemistry and behaviours, motive to invest in each other's well-being.
8. Other positivity emotions are not mirrored back in this way.
9. Love reverberates between people and belongs to all parties involved.
10. Safety is a precondition for love.
11. People who suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness and low self-esteem; have a limited ability to experience love 2.0.
12. Eye contact is a potent trigger for positivity resonance.
13. You can experience some of the positive effects of love 2.0 while alone, when thinking about a loved one for instance, but the effects are diminished.
14. Love impacts your body on the cellular, even molecular level.
15. Love physically impacts your brain's development, causing you to experience more positivity and less anxiety.
16. Love 2.0 triggers cascades or oxytocin, sometimes called, "the love hormone".
17. Oxytocin is the lead chemical in the "calm and connect" function; it literally reduces stress.
18. Oxytocin appears to make people more intuitive about others.
19. Love increases "vagal tone", which your doctor can measure to predict the likelihood of your having a heart attack.
20. People with higher vagal tone regulate glucose levels and inflammation, as common denominator in many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
21. Vagal tone can be improved with training with positivity resonance.
22. "In the very moment that you experience positivity resonance, your brain syncs up with the other person's brain."
23. The effects of love can be carried to you by a person's voice.
24. "Brain coupling" occurs between people who are experiencing positivity resonance and in some cases, you begin to anticipate the other person's thoughts, feelings and words, rather than just react to them.
25. The causal arrow runs in both directions at once and drives self-sustaining trajectories of growth.
So viewed from Fredrickson’s position love is far more universal and abundant than the limited hearts and roses Valentines version. In this manner love is connection that can be experienced as mild or intense but either way our body responds with a set of positive reactions which increase our wellbeing and may also increase our life expectancy. Whether it’s the moving flutter of our heart when we gaze into a baby’s eyes or share a fond hug with a loved friend, or the affection and sense of shared purpose we surprisingly sense with strangers who’ve come together to listen to a lecture on positive psychology, this kind of micro-moment of positive resonance can be experienced anytime two or more people meet. And to me that feels just what we need right now. Following love as a shared moment that unfolds and resonates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — stops it being about me, my emotions, and instead belongs to all parties involved, and to the symbolic connections that binds us together, even if only briefly. So more than any other positive emotion love belongs not to one person, but to multiples of people; within connections we find meaning and purpose, hope and reason to believe that ultimately everything will be OK. Romantic as that notion may seem I feel that humans’ capacity for universal love will outlast any momentary damage that individualism may inflict.