It’s just like Miss Piggy said: “This, you see, is my ultimate ambition—to live a simple life with the frog I love.” Whether we’re cooing at a romcom, getting all fluttery over saying “I love you” for the first time, or dissecting Pam and Jim’s “will they or won’t they?” moments, romantic love is something a lot of us spend a lot of time thinking about.
According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, about six in 10 people want to get married, and 84 percent of unmarried people feel that love is a very important reason to marry. In other words, lots of us are on the lookout for the frog we love. This makes sense—love feels terrific and it’s good for us. But what if experiencing love’s flood of feel-good didn’t require spending hours tinkering with your OkCupid profile or filling your calendar with meet-your-mate activities like speed dating? What if finding love was as easy as going about your day and sharing mini-but-meaningful moments with the people, from coworkers to baristas, whose paths you cross in the process?
More Than a Feeling?
In 2013 psychologist Dr. Barbara Frederickson declared that everything we knew about love and living happily ever after was wrong. Fredrickson’s ideas about love were new and refreshing, and she had the science to back it up. She showed that love isn’t just what we hear about in songs or see in movies; it’s not just the tangle of intimacy, sexual desire, and longing between spouses, or the closeness and connection we feel with friends and relatives. And it’s not the elusive, hard-fought, hard-won reward at the end of an epic search for our one-and-only.
Love is, Fredrickson maintains, a neurobiological response she refers to as a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” Say what now? Basically she’s referring to a charge of emotional electricity between people that can be observed physiologically. These moments can be shared between any two people—romantic partners, friends, relatives, even strangers.
I Want to Know What Love Is: The Science of Connection
Fredrickson’s theory is that it all boils down to biology. More specifically, she chalks feelings of love up to mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone—a trio of responses we might think of as the hat-trick of love. When two people connect, Fredrickson told us via email, “people’s neural firings come into synchrony across widespread areas of the brain; minutes later, they show synchrony in surges of oxytocin, the neuropeptide implicated in bonding.” In other words, love (and connection) really can happen at first sight.
If you want more love in your life, you should (wait for it) love more people in your life.
The process works like this: First, mirror neurons—brain cells that respond the same way whether we see an action performed or perform it ourselves—are engaged. If you’ve ever cringed at the sight of someone getting hurt or felt your stomach churn when you hear the disgust in someone’s voice as they describe something truly foul, your mirror neurons are doing their job: They’re allowing you to relate to other people, establish connections, and empathize with others’ experiences Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world. Hasson U, Ghazanfar AA, Galantucci B, et al. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2012 Feb;16(2):114-21. .
Next up is oxytocin, the hormone that’s released during hugging, touching, and sex. Its presence lowers stress, facilitates bonding, and plays an important role in romantic attachment Effects of partner support on resting oxytocin, cortisol, norepinephrine, and blood pressure before and after warm partner contact. Grewen KM, Girdler SS, Amico J, Light KC. Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. Psychosom Med. 2005 Jul-Aug;67(4):531-8. Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: relations to couples' interactive reciprocity. Schneiderman I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Leckman JF. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Aug;37(8):1277-85. . The matching spikes in oxytocin that people experience when they share a micro-moment of connection indicate that bonding is taking place.
Finally there’s vagal tone, or the measurement of heart rate in relationship to breathing rate as regulated by the vagal nerve (Have we lost you yet?). Though it’s hardly common dinner conversation, the vagal nerve plays a big role in all of our lives by sending sensory information about the body to the brain, making it the gatekeeper of the mind-body connection. Research has shown that when people have higher vagal tones, they have more control over their emotions, are more adept at remaining calm in stressful situations, and also have greater internal resources available for social connection and engagement. Vagal tone works in concert with oxytocin activation and firing mirror neurons during moments of human connection, resulting in an “added boost of energy that comes from ‘feeling felt’ by the other person.” After a “steady diet” of these moments, people’s vagal tones improve, which in turn makes them more open to more of these connections How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. Psychological Science, 2013 Jul 1;24(7):1123-32. . The takeaway? If you want more love in your life, you should (wait for it) love more people in your life.
Because moments of “feeling felt” are more or less physiologically identical no matter who they’re occurring between, Fredrickson makes a strong case for the idea that “true love” is not contained to long-term romance, but can happen in an instant, between anyone.
'True love' is not contained to long-term romance, but can happen in an instant, between anyone.
And while we cannot fully control when and how we connect with others, we can take steps to increase the likelihood that it will happen.
Searchin' for a Real Love: Your Action Plan
Take a break from searching for the ultimate cup to your saucer and use our action plan to guarantee yourself a day (or more!) of spiking feel-good oxytocin and cultivating as many micro-moments of connection as you can. Fredrickson weighed in on the steps involved in creating micro-moments of positivity resonance:
1. Evaluate your positivity. Fredrickson’s Positivity Self-Test (it’s free!) takes an inventory of how you’ve been feeling with respect to an array of positive and negative emotions like curiosity, inspiration, trust, shame, disgrace, humiliation, and more. After you’ve tracked these feelings over a few days or weeks (the tool saves your answers over time), you can start to see patterns in how open you are to experiencing micro-moments and make any necessary change to enhance your emotional availability.
2. Make yourself more available. First impressions matter. It takes just a handful of moments to get a sense of someone’s personality, which could mean that simply deciding to be open to new people and connections and letting it show is enough to facilitate a micro-moment with someone. Keep in mind that lots of people are working hard to connect, meet new people, and make friends, so if you can be a bit more gregarious, you’re more likely to connect. It’s as easy as flashing those pearly whites; people who smile are perceived as happier, extroverted, and more sympathetic Reading a Smiling Face: Messages Conveyed by Various Forms of Smiling. Otta, E., Folladore Abrosio, F., Hoshino, R.L. Perceptual and Motor Skills 1996 Jun;82(3 Pt 2):1111-21. .
3. Make eye contact. Meeting someone’s gaze can help them feel listened to and engaged and has been shown to enhance trust and activate our brain’s reward centers. Some researchers believe that eye contact also cues the release of feel-good oxytocin. While it might initially feel a little awkward to lock eyes with a perfect stranger (especially if you live in a big city), eye contact communicates honesty and authenticity, while avoiding it can relay deception or disrespect (and squinting reads as indicating anger or stress). Try meeting someone’s gaze to non-verbally communicate your friendliness and affability; they just might communicate the same.
4. Pay close and respectful attention. The ability to listen is so integral to caring for others that it’s considered a necessary skill for nurses to effectively offer treatment Listening: a concept analysis. Shipley SD. Nursing Forum. 2010 Apr-Jun;45(2):125-34. . One study found that “active empathic listening” (a “higher form” of listening that combines sensing, processing, and responding) is associated with good social skills and sensitivity. Make an effort to listen closely throughout the day in all interactions, from asking a stranger for the time or directions to chatting with roommates and meeting with co-workers. (If you feel that your listening skills need some brushing up, review some step-by-step guidance for listening well. You can also take a brief test to learn which of your listening skills are up to par and which might need some practice.)
5. Practice loving-kindness meditation. In a 2008 study, participants who spent one hour per week practicing loving-kindness meditation (during which they visualized positive emotions like love, tenderness, and contentment) felt more positive and experienced that positivity when interacting with others Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2008 Nov;95(5):1045-62 . Regular loving-kindness meditation may also increase vagal tone and subsequently make practitioners more capable of engaging in micro-moments of connection Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Hofmann SG, Grossman P, Hinton DE. Clinical Psychology Review. 2011 Nov;31(7):1126-32 Loving-kindness in the treatment of traumatized refugees and minority groups: a typology of mindfulness and the nodal network model of affect and affect regulation. Hinton DE, Ojserkis RA, Jalal B, et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 2013 Aug;69(8):817-28. .
Now that we know a love life full of warm and cuddly feelings is attainable regardless of relationship status, all that’s left to do is start cultivating some micro-moments. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting started at my local coffee shop. After all, this is the place where I regularly think “I could hug you right now,” as I reach across the counter to take a steaming cup of life-giving coffee from a friendly barista. There are just five steps between me and making that feeling mutual.
Thank you to Dr. Fredrickson for her contributions to this piece.