Home What is Love, Anyway?

What is Love, Anyway?

written by Kathryn Britton August 9, 2011

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include 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

Not seeing the