Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.
Love is one of the most important, yet most misunderstood emotions we experience. Human brains are naturally wired for connection with others, and we experience loneliness and rejection as painful threats to survival. For both biological and cultural reasons, many of us believe we need a lasting love relationship to be truly fulfilled. Yet, in reality, love is not necessarily a lasting, unchanging state, nor is it something that we find outside of us. Rather, the potential to love lies within us – it’s a willingness to open our hearts and care about others. Long-time love is not automatic, but takes hard work, unselfishness, and a willingness to be vulnerable. Below are ten science-based facts to help you understand what love really is – and what it isn’t.
1. Love is Different than Passion or Lust
Although physical attraction is an important part of love for most of us, emotional love is different than lust. That is why one-night stands and alcohol-fueled hookups don’t automatically lead to long-term relationships. Studies that scan the brain in real time show that we manifest lust or in motivation/reward areas of our brains, while love lights up the parts of our brain, connected to caring and empathy.
2. Love Is Both a Momentary Feeling and a Long-Term State of Mind
New research shows we experience love in the moment as a state of communion or deep connection. Two hearts beat together as one (there’s something in that stereotype) in a resonant rhythm. In this moment of connection, people in love mirror each other’s facial expressions, gestures, and physiological rhythms. On the other hand, love can also be a lasting mental and emotional state in which we care deeply for the wellbeing of another, feel moved by their pain and motivated to help relieve their suffering or protect them. We also share in the joy when they feel happy. Witness all the proud parents at college graduation ceremonies!
3. Building Lasting Love Relationships Takes Work
A meta-analysis (numeric research summary) of the best studies of long-term loving relationships highlighted a couple of behavior patterns that couples with lasting love share. Among them, partners think of each other positively when they are not together, support each other’s personal growth and development, and undertake shared experiences in which they can learn and expand themselves.
4. We Can Actively Increase Our Capacity to Love
Research on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion show that practicing these strategies regularly can change our brains to be more positive and empathetic in a matter of months. Monks who regularly practice compassion meditation have a different rhythm of brain alpha waves than beginning meditators or the average person. Mindfulness and compassion meditations increase activity in brain centers connected with empathy and positive emotions, and decrease activation of fear centers, as well as making our brains more interconnected – a brain pattern associated with the secure attachment pattern.
5. Love Is Not Just In Your Head
A large body of research shows that loving connection is essential to long-term physical health. Loneliness and lack of social connections has been shown to shorten our lifespans as much as smoking. Just being a member of a Church, synagogue, or community group lessens this effect. For men in particular, marriage improves long-term health and the death of a spouse is a risk factor for earlier death. We don’t know if this is because wives encourage their spouses to eat properly and go to the doctor or if it’s due to the emotional and physical connection.
6. If We Focus on Love, We Can Enhance It
When we deliberately focus our attention on loving feelings and actions towards our loved one, we begin a positive spiral of mutual appreciation, happiness, and reciprocity. Let’s face it, we all want to be thought about, cared for and appreciated. Research on gratitude shows that expressing gratitude in words or actions actually creates positive emotions in the giver as well as the receiver.
7. Love Is Not a Fixed Quantity
Loving one person a lot does not mean you have less to give to others. In fact the opposite is true. Love is a capacity you can build within yourself with mental concentration, emotional engagement, and caring actions. When we focus on and savor our loving feelings for one person, the internal feelings of satisfaction and connection we experience can motivate us to be more loving in general.
8. Love is Not Unconditional
One of the preconditions for loving feelings is a sense of safety and trust. In order to connect lovingly and empathically, your prefrontal cortex has to send a signal to your amygdala – the brain’s alarm center, to switch off your automatic “fight or flight” response. People with childhood trauma, neglect, abuse, or other experiences that threaten secure attachment, may have a harder time switching off “fight-flight-freeze” and feeling safe enough to love. This reticence can be overcome with therapy or, sometimes, by a partner who repeatedly demonstrates trustworthiness and care. However, if your repeated expressions of care are not reciprocated by any heart softening in your partner, it could be time for you to consider moving on.
9. Love is Contagious
Expressions of caring, compassion, and empathy can inspire these feelings in others. This may be why great leaders, such as the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela, inspire us to be our best selves and help their followers calm down “fight or flight.” The story is told that Black youth in South Africa, suffering with years of oppressive apartheid rule,” were ready to take up their guns in violent uprising, but Mandela persuaded them that this was not the right way. Instead, he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a forum for people to confess political crimes and for victims to work towards forgiveness.
10. Love Is Not Necessarily Forever, But It Can Be
Shakespeare famously wrote in Sonnet 116 that “Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.” We now know that fixed, unchanging love is possible, but not the norm. In fact, some theorists even question the idea of a fixed, unchanging “self.” We are not the same person today as we were 10 years ago. Life experience can alter our biology, thought patterns, and behavior. Therefore, relationships may be challenged when one person’s needs change or people grow in different directions. That being said, researcher Art Aron and colleagues at Stony Brook University have shown, that a minority of people reporting long-term, intense love for their partners look the same as newly in love individuals on brain scans, when thinking about their partners.
In summary, love is part hearts and flowers and the stuff romantic movies are made of, and part hard work and commitment. We can love many people, not only our partners and love makes us healthier and happier. A peak experience in the moment, love can also be a lasting facet of our lives, encompassing many different relationships and experiences.
Acevedo, B.P., Aron A., Fisher, H. E, & Brown, L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couples shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-283.
Barbara, L. Frederickson (2013) Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.
About The Author:
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Managing Anxiety, and Depression, Succeeding at Work,, and Mind-Body Health. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for your organization and coaching and psychotherapy for individuals and couples
Do you want to be notified via e-mail when Dr Greenberg posts a new article on The Mindful Self-Express or her personal blog?
Sign up at the link below:
Visit Dr Greenberg's website:
Read her Psychology Today blog & personal blog