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What is Love Anyway?

written by Aren Cohen 12 February 2008

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

In the mid-1980’s, Howard Jones crooned on the radio: “What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?” Here, two days before Valentine’s Day, I thought I would explore the idea of love a little more fully. I think it seems safe to answer Jones’ second questions with a resounding yes. People love each other all around us, all the time. If I had to place a bet, love is probably essential to the human condition. We all need attachments to others; we all need to love and be loved. If not, why would people write love songs? Even Jones wrote another song called “Everlasting Love,” where he sings, “I need an everlasting love, I need a friend and a lover divine….” Clearly he believed that people do love.

Shapes and Sizes of Romantic Love

So what is this love that we bandy about all the time? Love comes in many different shapes and sizes. Most frequently we think of love in terms of romantic love— that heady experience that is so often glorified in romantic comedies, the first blush of meeting a lover and falling “head over heels” for him or her. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jon Haidt explains that in romantic love there are in fact two stages. The first, the one that Hollywood usually celebrates and lionizes is called Passionate Love. This is the love where we nuzzle, we gaze into each others’ eyes, and we “fall” into love. By comparison, there is a second stage of romantic love that called Companionate Love. After you have known someone for a while, once you know his or her quirks, once you have decided to join your lives together, well, then you are companions, and your love is companionate in nature.

Romantic love is often under the microscope. We understand some of the biology behind it. An article in the New York Times called Hitting It Off, Thanks to Algorithms of Love, (Jan 29, 2008) talked about how online dating services are trying to figure out how to master the science of romantic love.

What About Other Kinds of Love?

But, with all this talk of romantic love, we forget that there are many other kinds of love out there. Our love for our parents, children and friends are also all profound kinds of love. Stephen Post, in his book Unlimited Love gives us different classifications of love. He says that the types of love include:

  • Celebration
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Care
  • Companionship
  • Correction

The different textures of these kinds of love make us more aware of the fine tuning of the emotions we feel when we say we love someone. This is useful because this kind of granulation allows us to appreciate the fine gradations of our feelings when we talk about this grand thing called love.

Bordering on the Spiritual

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that love, like all positive emotions, borders on the spiritual. Even if online dating services can find the science behind love, would we want to know it? An emotion that makes us feel that good is both mysterious and mystical, and maybe to a certain degree it should stay that way. The biology we have identified, oxytocin and mirror neurons, are all very well and good, but more important to me is the way my mother’s hug feels, how that look from him makes my heart beat quicken.

Yes we can give it words, we can give it science, but at the end of the day, what we feel borders on the magical, because it happens uniquely to us, in only that rarified situation. When we feel it deep in our hearts and our brains, our need to translate it into words and science recedes into the background. Maybe that’s why we have love songs. They allow us to feel it, to confirm that love does exists, and that people definitely love each other, no matter what questions the musicians might ask.




Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Post, S. G. (2003). Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion, and Service. Philadelpha, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Kiss courtesy of Dr. Wendy Longo

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