Home All Love is … (according to Fredrickson!)

Love is … (according to Fredrickson!)

written by Dave Shearon 17 February 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Love is … .  From that sentence stub, poets, philosophers, and psychologists have taken flight.  Now, Barbara Fredrickson gives us a new angle on love in her book Positivity.  Our readers are likely familiar with Dr. Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotions:  While experiencing positive emotions, we broaden our thought/action repertoires and build physical, psychological, and social resources for the future.  In Positivity, Dr Fredrickson explains this theory, summarizes some of the research that has failed to falsify it, and also describes the 3:1 minimum ratio for flourishing established by Marcial Losada’s mathematics and empirically verified by her data. 

She also discusses the 10 positive emotions that her research subjects have recounted as most common and most powerful in their lives.  Love, while most common and most powerful, is listed last — and it has to be.  Let’s look at the other nine positive emotions first in order to understand the positioning of love, and also Dr. Fredrickson’s explanation of what love is.

Here’s a short description and a picture for each of the first nine positive emotions.  Click on the pictures to see larger versions –they are wonderful!


JoyJoy (glad, happy)

Context Safe, familiar
Experience:  Things going your way, even better than expected
Feeling:  Playful
Action:  Jump (in)



GratitudeGratitude (appreciative, thankful)

Context:  N/A
Experience:  Recipient of a gift — from another, from God, or from the universe
Feeling:  Open-hearted
Action:  Give back



SerenitySerenity (content, peaceful)

Context:  Safe, familiar
Experience:   Low effort, relaxed, all is right with the world
Feeling:   Savor
Action:   Sink in



InterestInterest (alert, curious)

Context:  Safe, but with something new
Experience:  Attracted, fascinated, engaged
Feeling:  Open, alive 
Action:  Explore, learn



HopeHope (optimistic, encouraged)

Context:  Facing threats or challenges
Experience:  Uncertainty, fear
Feeling:  Energized
Action:  Plan



PridePride (Confident, assured)

Context:  Specific achievement
Experience:  Personal credit, valued by others
Feeling:  Upright (stand tall)
Action:  Dream and persist



AmusementAmusement (Humorous, fun-loving, silly)

Context:  Safe, usually social
Experience:  Safe, nonserious social incongruity, surprise
Feeling:  Laugh
Action:  Connect



InspirationInspiration (Uplifted, elevated)

Context:  N/A
Experience:  Human nature at its very best
Feeling:  Warmed
Action:  Step beyond yourself, give, excel



AweAwe (Wonder, amazement)

Context:  N/A
Experience:  Goodness or greatness on a grand scale (nature, art, achievement) (can mix with fear)
Feeling:  Part of something greater
Action:  Challenged to accept, accomodate; can emotionally bind to charismatic leader



Love (closeness, trust, connection)  Dr Fredrickson suggests, is momentary surges of all of the preceeding positive emotions within a safe relationship.  This can be an intimate, romantic, familial relationship.  But it can also be a friendship, team, or group of colleagues.  The degree of closeness, openness, and intimacy varies, but the nature of this positive emotion is a higher-order melding of other positive emotions and a relationship, with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.  Love makes us feel warm, affirmed and affirming, and we act by getting closer. 

You may have noticed that I have not presented a picture for love.  I have one.  I selected it in the same way as the ones above, by searching for photos on flickr with a Creative Commons license allowing commercial use (with the exception of the Mona Lisa picture).  I found these pictures to go with a CLE presentation I was recording for use in a program that would have a moderator, but with me not present.  So, I have not gotten feedback yet.  I like the picture I selected for love, but (1) I have some questions about my choice and (2) I would like to see what images speak to you of Dr. Fredrickson’s explanation of love. 

So, here’s a challenge for readers.  Find a picture that you think captures this meaning of love, or find one that really represents one of the other positive emotions, and post the links in the comments.  I enjoyed looking for pictures to capture what these emotions meant to me, so I hope you will.  In addition, I suspect we will all benefit from seeing each other’s selections.  So, good hunting!


Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive . New York: Crown.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press. (Added later)

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Editor S.M. 17 February 2009 - 12:05 pm

Dave! What a beautiful article!!!
Wow, S.

WJ 17 February 2009 - 1:55 pm


The research I have seen suggests that low energy positive emotions such as contentment are the powerful positive emotions (see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=261).

George’s article talks about various types of love and I’d speculate that the low energy version called storge predicts longevity in relationships.

Its interesting to notice the direction of Barbara F’s research – loving kindness meditation – the low energy emotions. She might be onto something.

I guess I agree with Kirsten’s take on love based on mindfulness.

Dave Shearon 17 February 2009 - 10:29 pm

Thanks, Senia.

Dave Shearon 17 February 2009 - 10:49 pm

Wayne, I think you are referring to the “Feeling Safe & Content” article by Gilbert, et al. They report on developing a new self-report instrument for positive emotions that reports on relaxed, safe/content, and activated positive emotions. They also suggest in the discussion that perhaps goal orientation and achievement — the province of the activated positive emotions — may have become over-emphasized in Western society. However, this is only a conjecture, not a conclusion from the research.

Gilbert et al. do suggest that, if talking about psychopathology, safe/content is even more negatively correlated than the other two, at least for their research sample that was 100% college undergraduates and over 80% female. However, it seems a bit of a stretc h to go from that to suggesting that these are the “powerful positive emotions.” For example, the Seligman, et al. research on the relation of character strengths to authentic happiness identified a “happy five” including zest and curiosity — not low energy states. Repeatedly in the research, including in the Gilbert article, we run across the notion that the positive emotions are highly interrelated. Thus, as a general matter in non-clinical work, i.e., not involving depression, anxiety, or other forms of psychopathology,

I am persuaded by Dr. Fredrickson’s suggestion that it is the positive/negative ratio that we should be focusing on to help folks move forward. However, just pursuing the emotions that come with goal-setting and goal-progress is just as one-sided as suggesting that goal- and achievement-related postive emtotions should be de-valued in favor of relaxed or safe/content emotions.

I thought you would be interested in the emphasis on meditation in Positivity. If no one covers it sooner, I mayu write about that next month, especially since Dr. Fredrickson goes beyond “awareness with acceptance” to look at the role of meditation in allowing those who sustain practice in it to become capable of generating a positive emotion (loving-kindness in this case) through an focused attention and will.

Finally, switching back to the Gilbert article and the suggestion that there are a set of “relaxed” emtions (relaxed, calm, peaceful, tranquil, laid back, sere) that differ in key ways from the set of “safe/content” emotions (safe, secure, content, warm). I have suggested that lawyers may be better able to tolerate the high levels of zero-sum and necessary evils they face within competitive contexts if they approach matters more like the zen martial arts masters. The existence of zen martial arts seems to fit with the Gilbert evidence that the relaxed emotional regulation system can be activated even when the “safe/content” system is not, i.e., in the presence of a threat. Just speculation, but the Gilbert article does open up some interesting avenues of thought.

wayne j 18 February 2009 - 12:37 am

Dave – it was the Gilbert study. The conclusion was that safe/content positive affect that had the highest negative correlations with depression, anxiety and stress, self-criticism, and insecure attachment.

So what is the emotion that loving kindness meditation generates – is it love or contentment or a combination.

I suspect the outcome of the LK meditation is the same – mindfulness – the ability to accept things.

You are falling into the trap of assuming that mindfulness is emotionless – I personally believe it enables positive emotions.

Dave Shearon 18 February 2009 - 7:04 am

Wayne, I didn’t say and didn’t think that mindfulness is emotionless. Dr. Fredrickson distinguishes between mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation (metta) (Positivity, p.196). I understand her to say that both can lead to an open state, that this open state is also produced by the positive emotions, and that the mind is structured so that the open state can release positive emotions just as positive emotions can create the open state. Ellen Langer’s “do something different that only you would know” would then be another path to this open state and the accompanying positive emotions. I gather from her writings that she favors loving-kindness meditation because it directly stimulates powerful positive emotions of love, compassion, care, and kindness — which happen to be high in the safe/content valence.

Kirsten Cronlund 18 February 2009 - 9:23 am


Thanks for this article, and I’m really enjoying your conversation with Wayne.

I agree that acceptance and lovingkindness meditation are not mutually exclusive. They support one another. The way I see it – and here I’m speaking from my own experience more than research – is that lovingkindness meditation works similarly to the practice of gratitude. That is, extending a wish to the world, to oneself, and even to “enemies” that they be well and taken care of lifts me up and away from the negative emotions I find myself bogged down by. It’s a completely different experience from slapping a happy smile on my face or denying the existence of my neg emotions. It’s more of a redirection. So, in a way, I guess it’s a sophisticated form of distraction. The end result is an opening of my heart and a raising of PE – so much so that I am in a much more creative place to solve problems and to reframe the original negative experience. This new state is filled with the higher energy emotions, like joy and zest, but those emotions are accessed through the lower energy emotions of contentment, acceptance, and gratitude.

Karen Reivich talks about resilience as having many components: bouncing back, steering through, and reaching out. I see acceptance (the nonjudgmental awareness of all internal and external stimuli) as key to resilience, and it seems that the lower energy emotions are the first doorway in. They allow for steering through and bouncing back. Then, from there, higher energy emotions are generated as hope rises from success in the earlier stages of resilience. Then the “reaching out” occurs, and that may be filled with more high energy emotions, like zest and joy.

Thoughts, anyone?

Kathryn Britton 18 February 2009 - 9:54 am

Here’s a link to a definition of Storg? love in Wikipedia — for those who wondered if Wayne had left a letter out of the word: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storge

Leanrainmakingmachine 18 February 2009 - 10:54 am

Does anyone have citatations/links to resources on how a beginner might begin accerss to LKM as here discussed? Is it through S Finkel?

Kathryn Britton 18 February 2009 - 11:24 am

I learned loving kindness meditation from an audio cassette by Jack Kornfield.

There are online versions — e.g.,

Be patient and get past the Sprint advertisement at the beginning.

Barbara Fredrickson also describes it in her book Positivity.


Christine Duvivier 18 February 2009 - 1:02 pm

Dave, a great article and helpful book review, thank you!!

As for photos that depict love, I assume you’re looking for something symbolic– and not our personal photos showing love for husband/kids/pets etc. I look forward to seeing the one you already found.


Dave Shearon 18 February 2009 - 1:37 pm

Leanrainmakingmachine, googling “loving kindness meditation” produces a host of resources, many of which look pretty good. However, Fredrickson recommends finding a class, retreat, or teacher as a way of learning faster and better. So does the author of this article on mindfulness for attorneys: http://bit.ly/qKuGk.

WJ 18 February 2009 - 1:42 pm


Sorry to misinterpret you. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book on positivity.

There are different pathways to mindfulnes. In my workshops I use HRV software that allows people to identify their most effective mindfulness technique (breathing, mantras, different types of meditation) etc. Everyone is different – it mostly boils down to personality and values that determine the best technique. For example recently I have found a mantra based on values seems to work effectively.

So why does it work? I suspect it develops emotional regulation which allows us to experience love, compassion, care and kindness.

Dave Shearon 18 February 2009 - 1:45 pm

Christine — yep, I’m looking for photos that would somehow illustrate to a general audience Dr. Fredrickson’s suggestion of love as the other nine positive emtions within a close, safe relationship. Photos with idiosyncratic meaning would be great for a positive psychology portfolio on love — Dr. Fredrickson discusses these in her book, drawing on James Pawelski’s experience and the assignment he gives in MAPP — but might not immediately communicate to a general audience.

For example, if you click on the picture above for inspiration to see a bigger version, or even use the URL under that bigger version to go to flickr and see an even larger version, you will see that written on this poster are statements evidencing the inspiration that it caused in others. (And one cynical, skeptical statement that might have been written by a lawyer!)

LeanRainMakingMachine 19 February 2009 - 9:05 am

Kathryn and Dave:
Thanks for the leads and links. Already started LKM….

Louis Alloro 19 February 2009 - 10:40 am


Thanks for this fantastic article — and thanks for calling us to action with this task of finding an image to represent love, which I found was not so easy to do.

At first I google-imaged “love” and was dismayed with what I found. Then, I looked through the image folder on my computer. Still, I couldn’t find it. And then viola, from my last article on PPND, where I talked about our relational responsibility, here is the image that helps *me* see & feel & be love:


It’s a photo of me and my twin sister, Christine. In that article, I said:

“Perhaps I take relational responsibility so seriously because I have a twin. When I think about the dynamics of our inception, I get goose bumps: two sperm winning the race at the same time. A true win-win in a Wrightian sense of nonzero sum.

My twin sister Christine also happens to be my best friend. When I see her becoming a better person, I want to become a better person. This year, she launched her own business, and is working tirelessly each day to ensure its success. In a sense, her success is my success. Her love is my love. It is shared energy.”

Dave Shearon 19 February 2009 - 4:02 pm

LRM, great! I hope you’ll let us know in a few weeks how your experience with LK Meditation is going. I love it when folks take action!

Dave Shearon 19 February 2009 - 4:05 pm

Louis, I suspect you could use the picture of you and your twin to talk about Fredickson’s concept of experiences of positive emotion within a safe relationship as love. You could identify times when you’ve experienced joy, gratitude, interest, serenity, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, and awe within the context of that relationship and how that was “love.” Am I right?

David Kincheloe 20 February 2009 - 12:35 pm

From graffitist to renowned artist, Keith Haring’s celebratory humanism expressed love and happiness for all.


aaron jarden 20 February 2009 - 2:05 pm

I know it’s one of the first photo’s to come up, however having jsut got married, it’s hard to imagine a time of life being more in love with my beautiful wife…


Gayle 20 February 2009 - 7:37 pm


Here’s a photo that shows a very joyful love…and suggests how deep the roots go in us.

Great article, fun contest–thanks, Dave!

Positive Psych Expat Coach

andreea 21 February 2009 - 7:57 pm

As adults we sometimes mistake love for a wide range of emotions we feel. I thought of wedding day pictures, of expressions of tender love… But there’s nothing like the closeness, trust and connection between a mother and her children. The undenying commitment to the well-being of another human being… so I picked this one http://www.flickr.com/photos/42346519@N00/311887065

I really like the contest and i think it’s hard to pick a winner, especially since as the article suggests, love comes with a surge in other positive emotions, so you can encounter shades of them in different facets of love, such as tender amusement, joy, gratitude and even inspiration!

Kathleen 24 February 2009 - 10:10 am

‘I believe I can fly, I believe+I+can+touch+the+sky…’
Edit image: in house or using Picnik
Loved this photo! Thanks!


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