At the grocery store last night, I came across three young men in the card aisle picking out valentines for their partners. They were mocking the selections. But behind the snarky comments, I smelled panic: Which of the $3.50 sentiments lined up before them—drippy, steamy, cheesy, or downright Elizabethan—would lock in the love that they (and we all) crave? Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the biological effects of positive emotions, would have us adopt a healthier attitude toward Valentine’s Day and love in general. I spoke to her earlier about her new book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Hudson Street/Penguin).
“I think that this new perspective on love will help us cut through the parts of Valentine’s Day that seem kind of difficult and forced and focus on what love really is,” she says. It’s a myth that love is “a lightning bolt that hits you one day and forever you’re in that state.” Rather, love is made of “micro-moments of shared connection,” or what she refers to as “positivity resonance.” And rather than being exclusive to a romantic partner, she points out, these moments can be experienced with all kinds of people in our lives, from our neighbors to the coworker in the next cubicle. (No jokes about The Office, please.)
Some of Fredrickson’s ideas on love and interconnectedness would nestle nicely into long-established religious traditions, and she cites various teachings in her book. But with colleagues in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, Fredrickson goes on to measure the physical benefits of these shared micro-moments, which she likens to nutrients for the body.
In one study, published in Psychological Science and described here in The Economist, researchers taught volunteers meditation skills to help them generate more moments of positive connection. “When they do that, they experience more of them and objective [health] markers like cardiac vagal tone improve,” Fredrickson says. Now her lab is looking at gene expression and how positive connections can change the body at the cellular level to help fight disease. (See the lab’s publications page for links to more studies.)
If love is so good for us, I wondered, why do we often miss these moments of connection? Fredrickson cites our reliance on technology. These micro-moments start with trust and a real-time sensory connection. (You can’t make eye-contact when you’re texting someone.) “The other reason is time pressure,” she says. While she’s talking on the phone with me, she admits to packing her bag to get ready for work. “Having that frenetic pace of today’s contemporary society really gets in the way of slowing down enough to connect with what we could be feeling with another. It’s a casualty of our contemporary world pace. We’re racing around at the speed of the mind when it’s like we need to feel these things at the slower speed of the heart.”
To give an example of what the pace of love looks like, Fredrickson described a recent conversation with a friend who’s dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “And I was just encouraging her to slow down and take care of herself, and we were connecting over the understanding of what each other was going through—me trying to offer support and her receiving it. It was a meaningful emotional connection.”
In another example, she described a woman whose disappointments made her cynical about romantic love. “The next week she wrote me to thank me for my ideas, [saying] ‘They really freed me somehow.’” By changing her expectations about what love was, Fredrickson says, “She was able to connect with people in her everyday life.”
That’s not to leave romantic relationships out of the picture entirely. According to Fredrickson, “We all know we shouldn’t take our loving relationships for granted. We should be attending to them and trying to make our partners feel valued and cherished,” she says. “These micromoments of shared positivity [are also] the building blocks of a strong resilient marriage.”