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Let’s be real for a second: Humans have been trying to define and explain love since the world’s first fluttered eyelash.
Fairy stories about dazzling princes and swooning princesses have filled the collective imagination for ages. Once the printing press entered the world, it spat out love stories (Mills and Boon still publish romance books regularly) at breakneck speed.
Cue Disney, rom-coms, and everything else that gives us a direct hit of syrupy, lovelorn emotions whenever we need. Love ’em or loathe ’em, they’re a clear indication that humans have always explored the idea of love.
According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, about 6 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 keeping an eye out for a partner who won’t throw their pants on and bolt seconds after you have sex for the first time.
This makes sense. Love feels terrific, and it can be good for your health.
But what if experiencing love’s flood of feel-good emotions didn’t require spending hours tinkering with your Tinder profile or filling your calendar with activities like speed dating?
What if you could simply go about your day and share little, meaningful moments with everyone you meet, from your coworkers to baristas, to access the same feeling?
What if… what if rom-coms weren’t so far-fetched after all? We took a leaf out of The BeeGees’ book and asked how deep love really is. We also took The Beatles to task on whether love was all you need.
In 2013, psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson declared in her book that everything we knew about love and living happily ever after was wrong. Thanks, Dr. Fredrickson. Now the kids are crying.
Fredrickson’s ideas about love were new and refreshing, and she had the science to back it up.
She theorized that love isn’t just what we hear about in songs or see in movies. It’s not just a tangle of intimacy, sexual desire, and longing, or a way to describe 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.”
Okay, that doesn’t sound like a Bryan Adams lyric. We’re stumped.
Fredrickson refers to a charge of emotional electricity between people that it is possible to observe in the body. These moments can transfer between any two people — romantic partners, friends, relatives, even strangers.
Fredrickson’s theory is love boils down to biology. More specifically, she chalks feelings of love up to mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. We might consider this trio of responses to be the Big Three 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, people really can feel love at first sight.
The process works like this:
1. Love engages the mirror neurons
These are brain cells that respond in kind when we see an action performed or hear a certain tone.
If you’ve ever cringed at the sight of someone eating cement after a skateboard accident or felt your stomach churn when you hear a person describe the worst crap they ever took, your mirror neurons are doing their job.
They’re key players in building empathy, relating to others, and establishing connections with people.
2. Oxytocin steps up
Next up is oxytocin, a hormone that circulates during hugging, touching, and sex.
In its dance around the body, oxytocin reduces stress, smooths over the bonding process, and helps people form romantic attachments.
According to Frederickson, people experience match spikes in their oxytocin levels when sharing a micro-moment of connection. Bonding may well be underway.
Finally there’s vagal tone. This measurement compares a person’s heart rate to their breathing rate. This tone gets its name from the vagal nerve.
This vital nerve sends sensory information about the body to the brain. It is the gatekeeper of the mind-body connection. If there’s something going on, good or bad, your vagal nerve knows about it and snitches to the brain.
People with higher vagal tones may have more control over their emotions, stay more calm in stressful situations, and have more emotional resources at hand for making connections.
Vagal tone works 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, making them more open to making further connections. If people want more love in their life, they should (wait for it) love more people in their life.
These little connections cause the same effects in your body no matter who you feel them with.
For this reason, Fredrickson makes a strong case that “true love” is not only referring to long-term romance but also these micro-moments. You can feel the bodily processes behind true love immediately.
And while we cannot fully control when and how we connect with others, we can take steps to increase how often it will happen.
Searchin’ for a real love: Your action plan
Take a break from searching for trying to find the person you’re going to be playing bridge with when you’re 90 years of age.
In the meantime, cultivate as many micro-moments of connection as you can. Fredrickson weighed in on the steps it may take to add further micro-moments of positivity to your body’s Library of Love.
1. Evaluate your positivity
Fredrickson’s free Positivity Self-Test can help you take an inventory of your positive and negative emotions, accounting for moments of curiosity, inspiration, trust, shame, disgrace, humiliation, and more.
The tool saves your answers over time. After you’ve tracked these feelings over a few days or weeks, you can start to see patterns in your openness to exciting micro-moments and start nurturing that side of you.
Your social skills form an invisible muscle that needs flexing daily. Consider positivity your protein shake for bulking them up.
2. Make yourself more available
First impressions matter.
It takes just a handful of moments to get a sense of someone’s personality.
This could mean, then, that a person could experience more micro-moments if they remain open to new people and connections.
Keep in mind that many people work hard to build relationships and make friends. If you put yourself out there, you’re more likely to connect with others.
As a way to make a striking first impression, smiling is a super effective connector and a great way to start any conversation with a new person. Strangers see those who smile more as happy, extroverted, and more sympathetic.
Do you struggle letting people in? Learn how to improve your emotional unavailability.
3. Make eye contact
Aah, the look of love. There’s nothing quite like gazing into the eyes of a loved one, distracting them with your loving gaze while you desperately try to find last-minute florists for the anniversary you forgot.
However, eye contact is an immensely effective feature of body language that gives off an air of confidence and a willingness to connect with others.
Meeting another person’s gaze can help them feel acknowledged and engaged. Research has shown that eye contact can enhance the listener’s trust and boost their mood.
Some researchers believe that there is a link between eye contact and the cuddle chemical, oxytocin. A 2015 study in which doctors administered nasal doseso of oxytocin to autistic males found that it increased the amount of eye contact they made during interactions.
While it might initially feel a little awkward to lock eyes with a perfect stranger, it remains essential when socializing. If you struggle with it, here’s a guide on how becoming a cashier helped one of our writers cope with social anxiety.
Eye contact communicates honesty and authenticity, while avoiding it can relay deception, disrespect, or uncertainty.
Meeting a person’s gaze leaves you vulnerable, but a willingness to show vulnerability means you either have supreme levels of self-confidence or nothing to hide.
Try meeting someone’s gaze to non-verbally communicate your friendliness. They just might convey the same thing.
Guys… this feels like a micro-moment. Embrace it.
4. Pay close and respectful attention
The ability to listen is so integral to caring for others that nursing courses include listening as an essential skill during treatment
One study found that people associate active empathic listening with good social skills and sensitivity. Active empathic listening combines sensing, processing, and responding to the things people say.
Make an effort to listen closely to whoever you meet during the day, from asking a stranger for the time or directions to chatting with roommates and meeting with coworkers.
Listen to your body and emotions as well as other people. We walk you through how to elevate your awareness when it comes to your body.
5. Practice loving-kindness meditation
Loving-kindness meditation involves immersing yourself in feelings of love, warmth, and compassion.
In a 2008 study, participants who spent 1 hour per week visualizing positive emotions like love, tenderness, and contentment felt more positive when interacting with others.
Regular loving-kindness meditation may help people feel more psychologically flexible and able to open themselves to meeting new people and connecting.
Another study found that it may even help people through depression, anger, social anxiety, and marital problems. There’s lasting power in flooding yourself with positive vibes.
Because if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love someone else?
Not into meditation? Try cuddling yourself instead.
Now we know that we can feel regardless of relationship status — all that’s left to do is start cultivating some micro-moments.
The most important takeaway from this is simple: Have fun talking to people. True love is not a fluke that comes from accidentally bumping into your One. It’s a relationship of trust and affection that you build on the basis of a powerful first impression.
Thank you to Dr. Fredrickson for her contributions to this piece.