What does it mean to love someone? Some people describe love as a feeling, which is part of the reason it gets mixed up with happiness. But love is a lot more than a feeling, and it does not immediately equate to happiness. By reviewing what love has meant to people throughout history and across cultures, researchers offer a definition of love containing four key components:
1. The beloved. To love someone, there must be someone to love.
2. The feelings that accompany love. These can be sexy feelings—or not.
3. The thoughts that accompany love. You think about the beloved.
Being with them, how they are, and so on.
4. The actions or relations one has with the beloved. Again, these
can be sexy actions—or not.
Although these components of love differ in how they are manifest across time and place, they have all have been present in some form when people describe love.
Now: will love make you happy? To have a beloved, as well as all the thoughts, feelings, and actions that come along with love? The evidence is pretty clear that although love can make you feel great, it also brings quite a bit of misery, too—and not just when you break up. Being in love is associated with emotions of joy and happiness, but it also associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, too. Because happiness is not just about good feelings—it’s also about the absence of bad ones—the research is clear that love does not equal happiness.
Why might love bring on such a mix of positive and negative experiences? As with all things that affect how we feel, the answer lies in attention: love impacts our happiness depending upon how much attention we pay to it. Love is highly attention-seeking when there is a lot of uncertainty associated with it. Does she love me? Will he ask me to marry him? What if her friends don’t like me? The negative uncertainty that comes with love is a recipe for experiencing both positive and negative emotions as a result of loving someone.
Moreover, the longer you love someone, the worse you are at knowing what they do and do not like. When people judged an array of food dishes, movies, and kitchenette designs according to how much they thought their partners would like them, the longer they had been with their partner, the worse they were at predicting their preferences; and yet, the more certain they were that they were right. People assume that the person they love has the same preferences that they did when they first met but, in fact people’s preferences change. Love can make us confused about what our partners like.
Love can also make us more likely to break our promises to our beloved. Research shows that people who feel like they really love their partner are more likely to make promises to them, but that they aren’t more likely to actually keep these promises. People who have good self-regulation skills—the ability to monitor and control what they do—are most likely to actually keep their promises to you, not necessarily the people who love you the most. This is another reason we might experience negative as well as positive emotions as a result of love.
So although love can be great, it also brings with it a whole host of misery-making, problems, negative uncertainty, mismatched preferences, and broken promises. If you care about your happiness, you should be realistic about the fact that love won’t always make you happy. Happiness will, however, affect your success in love. Happier people are more likely to get married. And research shows that the bigger the happiness gap between spouses, the more likely it is that they will get divorced. This is most common when the woman is less happy than her husband. Rather than focusing on love as a route to happiness, perhaps it’s best to focus on being happy regardless of love, and then love and strong relationships will follow.