Home All What is Love, Anyway?

What is Love, Anyway?

written by Kathryn Britton 9 August 2011

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

This is the second article based on the International Positive Psychology Association World Congress held in Philadelphia in July, 2011. There will be more.

Barbara Fredrickson at IPPA

Barbara Fredrickson at IPPA

In her keynote speech at this summer’s IPPA Congress, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson invited the audience to suspend their ideas about love for 45 minutes in order to absorb her definition, and then see what resulted when they put her definition together with what they already knew. She cautioned that this is a work in progress with some rough edges, but it is connected it to previous research that positive emotions unlock other-focused thinking.

So I invite you here, just as Barbara Fredrickson invited the audience, for just a minute or two, to put aside your ideas of love as

  • Sexual desire
  • A special bond
  • A commitment
  • Exclusive
  • Lasting
  • Unconditional

   Engagement photo

So what’s left?

Fredrickson defined love as an interpersonally situated and socially shared experience of one or more positive emotions marked by

  • Investment in the well-being of the other
  • Biobehavioral synchronization
  • Mutually responsive action tendencies
  • which over time may build

  • Embodied rapport (“We really clicked”)
  • Social bonds
  • Commitment

First shared love

Love Compared to Other Positive Emotions

Thus love is just like all positive emotions — fleeting, lasting seconds to minutes.

But it is more than other positive emotions in that it is shared. In fact, love can be the experience of sharing any other positive emotion, an experience that resonates back and forth between two (or more) people, causing their bodies to synchronize, as each unconsciously mimics the other’s facial expression and posture and biological state. Fredrickson said that love is positivity resonance, a single positive emotion performed by 2 brain/body units.

Back to What Love is Not

Sipping Together

Love is not unconditional, in that there are conditions that affect how well people can reach the synchronized state. Fredrickson spoke about eye contact, which gives people the ability to mimic each other’s expressions and come quickly to resonance. What happens when eye contact is not possible? How well does eye contact over Skype work? These are interesting possibilities for future research.

Love is not itself a bond, but remember that positive emotions over time build lasting resources. Thus love, through many experiences of shared positive emotion, may result in a bond and a lasting commitment.

What Does this Mean?

Have you ever asked yourself, “How can I make so-and-so love me more?” or even “How can I love so-and-so more?” I have asked myself both questions, but I’ve been aware that any impulses to demand or force love tended to backfire.

Somehow, thinking of love as momentary, shared, and resonating positive emotions changes the answers to the question by giving me the whole palette of positive emotions to work with.

  • We can look for chances to share interests. My husband and I, for example, read books out loud together.
  • We can do physical activities together, for example dancing together or going for a walk together.
  • We can share jokes and laugh at the same time.
  • We can find opportunities to share gratitude, to share dreams that feed hope, and to express and encourage optimism in each other.
  • When joy arrives, we can take care to share it. One of my friends just wrote about the joy of her daughter’s wedding, and I’m sure her husband was right there with her.
  • Following the lead of Ryan Niemiec and Jeffrey Siegel, perhaps we could go to the movies and then talk about experiences of shared admiration and elevation.

I’ve mentioned before that shared memories are vital to a long marriage. Let me rewrite that: what’s vital are shared positive memories, even if they are shared memories of withstanding hardships that increased our admiration for each other.

Let me conclude with Fredrickson’s final question, “Could positivity resonance (love) be more potent than positivity alone?”


Visit the publications page of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina for links to papers by Dr. Fredrickson and colleagues.

Algoe, S.B. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2011). Emotional fitness and the movement of affective science from lab to field. American Psychologist, 66, 35-42.

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

Kok, B.E, Fredrickson, B.L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85, 432-436.

Feldman, R., Gordon, I. & Zagoory-Sharon, O. (2010). Maternal and paternal plasma, salivary, and urinary oxytocin and parent–infant synchrony: Considering stress and affiliation components of human bonding. Developmental Science, 14 (4), 752-761. Fathers as well as mothers synchronize with their infants.

Niedenthal, P. M., Mermillod, M., Maringer, M. & Hess, U. (2010). The Simulation of Smiles (SIMS) model: Embodied simulation and the meaning of facial expression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 417–480.

Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J. & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(32), 14425-14430.

Vacharkulksemsuk, T. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2012). Strangers in sync: Achieving embodied rapport through shared movements. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 399-402.

Picture of Dr. Fredrickson speaking at IPPA courtesy of Kaori Uno
Engagement Picture courtesy of Jeremy Blanchard
First shared positive emotion courtesy of Mark Pilgrim
Sipping Together courtesy of Natalia Balcerska
Dancing together courtesy of theqspeaks

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Judy Krings 9 August 2011 - 3:23 pm

Love this Kathryn, and I wish I could have heard my positive coaching positivity hero in person. Defining Love, finally! Two hearts do connect. And “What’s love go to do with it?” Everything! It isn’t a “second-hand emotion”! Scientific evidence, what we have all been waiting for. Elusive LOVE. Just what IS it? Now we know! The “exclusive” was a Wow for me! Broaden and build love and it was last. And all the positive emotion broadens and builds. Love, sex, and physical synchronicity for relationships to LAST! A sweet treat with no calories! Then reminiscing about it reinforces the LOVE. Ahhh… thanks for taking great notes,Kathryn. And if I am ot mistaken, Todd Kashdan especially enjoyed Fredrickson’s presentation, too. I enjoyed seeing Ryan Niemiec’s name here, too. Another kind and generous man I adore!

Elaine O'Brien 9 August 2011 - 8:55 pm

Thanks, Kathryn for a great article, and heartfelt overview of Barbara Fredrickson’s excellent new research on LOVE. I appreciate your beautiful resources including the link to the exciting new Kok and Fredrickson on “Upwards Spirals of the Heart: Autonomic Flexibility, as indexed by Vagal Tone Reciprocally and Prosectively Predicts Positive Emotions and Social Connectedness.” It’s powerful that Fredrickson also says we can train for love,and the we are “made with love, but made for love.” I can’t wait to try some of your LOVE tips. Finally, thanks for setting a tone that perfectly envoked the very essence of her great and appreciated presentation.

Aren Cohen 9 August 2011 - 11:09 pm

Kathryn, thank you so very much for this wonderful and educational synopsis of Barbara Fredrickson’s talk at IPPA. Researching love as a positive emotion built by biological and evolutionary behaviors is unquestionably fascinating and important. Certainly it helps us to “demystify” love, and this research allows us to find tools and mechanisms to best to build and support love. I find Barbara Fredrickson’s work not only compelling, but also highly convincing.

However, I must admit that the romantic in me cringes… just a little bit. When we read Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen, they were not telling us about the “synchronization” of Jane and Rochester or Lizzy and Darcy. Equally, while Judy rightly points out that Tina Turner sings that love is not a “second hand emotion,” most love songs do not tell us WHAT to do to fall in love, but rather how wonderful the (shared) feeling is.

I know that Dr. Fredrickson’s job, as a scientist, and our jobs, as good empirical positive psychologists, is to embrace this research, and in my heart of hearts, I do. Nonetheless, I still contend that whatever “mystery” remains in love (Bless the writers, musicians, artists who pay homage in that way!) helps to keep us running towards it and keeps the “romance” of it alive.

oz 10 August 2011 - 1:01 am

Hi Kathryn, did BF talk about HRV. I assuming she did as HRV is all about resonance. Its really amazing to watch the physiological resonance when two people connect.

Judy Krings 10 August 2011 - 7:31 am

Elaine and Aren, your comments are uplifting and motivating. It is wonderful to feel the love from you both who write so eloquently. I’m going to re-read Kathryn’s exceptional blog with your ideas cruising in my brain. Thanks!

Kathryn Britton 10 August 2011 - 9:37 am

Your comment makes my head spin! Thanks for responding with so much energy. I think Dr. Fredrickson’s speech was the biggest Aha! for me at the conference, but there were others, yet to come.


Kathryn Britton 10 August 2011 - 9:44 am


Yes, Dr. Fredrickson did talk about heart-rate variability as a marker of higher vagal tone, and higher vagal tone as a marker of physical and mental health. She also showed a mutually increasing relationship between positivity resonance and vagal tone. So yes! she did talk about the physical resonance in terms of vagal tone as well as oxytocin. I included the Kok and Fredrickson reference with this in mind. I’m very glad you brought this point out.


Judy Krings 10 August 2011 - 9:57 am

Hi, Kathryn,

I forgot to tell you now much I enjoyed your apropos photos which grabbed my attention. Thanks to your links I enjoyed connecting to stretch my photographic joy. You are such a pro and one I am grateful to know.

Thanks to all for a terrific thread.

Kathryn Britton 10 August 2011 - 10:00 am


Thanks for bringing up the point that I find in my notes as “Learning to self-generate love through Loving-Kindness Meditation.” My speculation is that people who practice LKM are more open to positivity resonance opportunities.

Thank you for the flower!

Dr. Fredrickson mentioned that she has some just-funded future work with Dr. Steven Cole in the School of Medicine at UCLA to look for changes in gene expression in the context of the question, “How does love change us?” Lots to look forward to as this research rolls out. Here’s a reference to Dr. Cole’s earlier work:

Cole, S.W. (2009). Social regulation of human gene expression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 132-137.


Kathryn Britton 10 August 2011 - 10:36 am


Dr. Fredrickson did say to put aside other ideas only for 45 minutes, and then pull them back and see how they integrate with the view of love as positivity resonance. She didn’t say “Trash them forever.” While she didn’t have “Love as a mystery” in her list, she could have done so.

There’s lots of mystery left about why two people might find themselves able to resonate most specially with each other, rather than the others around. Elizabeth and Darcy were drawn to each other against their two (conscious) wills. But if you read the end of the book, where Darcy’s sister is amazed to see Elizabeth teasing Darcy and Darcy enjoying it, I think you see a pretty good resonance going.

Besides, novels like Pride and Prejudice tend to end soon after the wedding. We all know that’s only the start of a long love. And perhaps other cultures, where marriages are arranged, have just as high a probability of love as Western cultures where pair-bonding starts with mysterious pursuits.


Jeremy McCarthy 10 August 2011 - 1:21 pm

Aren brings up a good point about unrequited love, which is not a shared emotion. I loved Fredrickson’s talk at IPPA, although it definitely covered a narrow definition of love. But that narrow definition allows for a more practical application as indicated by your wonderful bullet point suggestions in the article. Then again, as we all know from experience, love is not always practical, and is often a mystery.

Kathryn Britton 10 August 2011 - 2:13 pm


I like your final statement, and I think it applies to emotions in general — they often aren’t practical and they are often very mysterious. That makes them unendingly fascinating to watch and experience.

It’s true that Fredrickson’s definition of love was narrow. Once we let the flood gates open again, a whole host of meanings of love came rushing back to mind. Though I do wonder if unrequited love really is a form of love, rather than disappointment, longing, or even self-sacrifice?

What I really like about the narrow definition of love is how actionable it is. Unrequited love often leaves a person in a very frustrated state where nothing seems to work but the urge to demand response doesn’t go away, even when the other withdraws. What if instead of trying to force the other person to respond in a particular way, the person suffering from unrequited love started observing instances where the other person experienced positive emotions and tried to find ways to enhance them? Might there be a way out of stalemate there?

Just a thought…


oz 10 August 2011 - 5:32 pm

Kathryn – re your comment on LKM. Remember Kok’s research essentially says you are wasting your time with LKM if you have low levels of HRV. That’s why I believe that their are some some fundamentals of meditation you need to master (which happen to increase HRV) before you try the more advanced techniques. And these fundamentals are breathing, focus and acceptance.

Perhaps a good reason to get the software out?

Kathryn Britton 10 August 2011 - 7:10 pm

Good point. I think it relates to Bridget’s article today — there’s the state of the particular individual within that individual’s context — all of which are important.


Aren Cohen 11 August 2011 - 11:23 am

Hi All,

I just had an “Aha” moment that may belie the fact that I haven’t been keeping up on the latest research, but I think I get it now. In “What Good Are Positive Emotions,” BF described love as a positive emotion. It seems now she is revising that. Now it seems that joy, interest and contentment are the positive emotions, and they work to”broaden & build” or create love. It also seems that what makes “love” different from broaden & build is that it exists between 2 people. (Still feels a little circular, but ok.) I suppose what she is suggesting is that investment in each other, biobehavioral synchronization and mutual response action tendencies, in the presence of the other identified positive emotions help engender love, a type of positive “condition” of a sorts.

What is particularly interesting about this to me is the “investment in each other” idea. I recently saw that George Vaillant, in describing love between Grant Study members, has started calling it a healthy “mutual dependence” as compared to the pathologized “mutual co-dependence.” What strikes me is that in my own research about fathers and daughters, many daughters described a “flat time”– usually between their 20’s & 50’s, where they did not stop loving their fathers, but presumably due to lower investment in each other, biobehavioral synchronization and mutual response action tendencies, (probably because they were in less frequent contact as well as other factors such as increased independence in that relationship), the intensity of the “positive condition of love” was felt to be less strong. Surely for most, embodied rapport, social bonds and commitment, due to prior years of the scientifically described behavior, had developed, but unless they were engaging in the suggestions in Kathryn’s “What does this mean” section of the article, the intensity of “love” seems to have diminished to a certain extent. Interestingly, when fathers aged (particularly fathers who outlived their spouses) and became more dependent on their daughters (ie the level of “investment” again increased because the fathers were vulnerable), daughters were more apt to describe that period as the time when they “loved their fathers the most.”

I think there is an interesting area for exploration in what exactly is meant by this “investment in each other.” Yes, as positive psychologists we all know that “other people matter.” However, at least with parents and children, “investment in each other” largely stems from moments when one is dependent on another, or “vulnerable.” It seems in romantic love, the “investment” more often occurs between two “equals,” and yet if those equals do not allow themselves to become dependent or vulnerable in each other’s presence (while ALSO sharing lots and lots of positive emotion) all the other goodies are less likely to follow along. (And perhaps this is part of what contributes to “unrequited” love.)

Sorry for the long post but trying to put it all together in my own head. Kathryn, thank you again for this article and the opportunity to explore all these ideas more fully. Also, thank you for reminding me of BF’s initial disclaimer, so that I am allowed to remain a romantic at heart…..


Aaron Mangal 2 May 2012 - 10:15 am

Kathryn, great article! You make a great point about all Love not being unconditional. However, I do also feel that there is a “Universal” Love that seems to permeate all of life. Late philosophers and scientists of the past have referred to it as the “ethers”, “chi” etc

I just feel like a lot of Love gets lumped into Romantic Love and sometimes not even Love at all. Limerance for example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limerance) is more of a romantic lust driven cycle where the two people “fall in love” with each other and exhibit a drug like addiction of each others presence. This invariably comes to an end after a certain period of time, I’ve read 2 weeks to two years is typical. Many people think Limerance is Love, however, I challenge that notion because to me Love is everlasting (although it does evolve in forms) and couldn’t just “wear off” like it does with the Limerance situation. I think the science is usually sound, it’s just our definitions that need to be clarified.

Just a thought.

Anyway, I liked this article so much that I included it in an blog article I wrote about Love.

Check it out here if you have a moment: http://www.love-olution.com/blog/2012/05/101-ideas-on-what-is-love-philosophically-scientifically-spiritually-and-beyond/

Thanks again for your contribution Kathryn!


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