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Mindful Love

written by Kirsten Cronlund 14 February 2013

Kirsten Cronlund, MAPP 2008, is committed to helping others navigate the rough waters of divorce with resiliency, drawing upon personal experience and the science of positive psychology. She is now serving as the director of Bryn Athyn Church School. Full bio.

Kirsten's articles are here.

Pros and Cons of Valentine’s Day

I have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, having a holiday dedicated completely to the savoring of romantic relationships seems a likely way to enhance and cultivate positive emotion, express gratitude, and even feel gratitude. I’m sure there are many who have lovely romantic Valentine’s Day celebrations.

On the other hand, even the most loving relationships go through ups and downs. Dedicating a holiday to highlighting romance and passion might cause stress for some people because we all fall victim to social comparison. It’s easy to assume that everyone else is feeling close to their romantic partners and that there must be something wrong with our relationship if we are not lovey-dovey.

I’m not a cynic. In fact, I have cultivated the practice of optimism to such a degree that some might say I’m like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. So don’t take it the wrong way when I say that romance is overrated. There’s nothing wrong with you if your Valentine’s Day is not Hallmark-worthy, and there may not even be anything wrong with your relationship if you would rather spend Valentine’s Day by yourself, soaking in a tub and reading a good novel, than getting dressed up and engage in stimulating conversation with your spouse.

In her new book, Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson defines love in terms of positivity resonance, a state of shared positive emotion, biochemical synchrony, and a shared motive to invest in each other’s well-being. Maybe your idea of the expression of love is contained in the activities of daily life: the sharing of and active responding to good news, helping your spouse by unloading the dishwasher, picking the children up from soccer practice, or painting the kitchen together. There’s nothing wrong with this.

Be Wary of Maximizing

Barry Schwartz has written in The Paradox of Choice that we make ourselves supremely unhappy when we maximize, that is, search and search for the “perfect” object or decision. We set ourselves up for disappointment because the amount of time and energy we invest in this process makes us subconsciously expect a level of happiness with our final decision that is highly unlikely. This is true when researching for the best dishwasher, and it is also true in relationships. Barry states that we are most happy when we set for ourselves a limited set of criteria that we are looking for, and quit looking when we have satisfied those requirements. He tells us not to second guess our decisions and to avoid comparisons to others as much as possible (except for downward comparisons, which can make us feel better about our circumstances).

Barry’s advice is perhaps relatively easy to follow when buying a vacuum, but it’s not so easy to remain as satisfied with one’s spouse. Conflict is inherent in all relationships, and the negotiation of the complexities of merging two outlooks and lifestyles incites people to periodically question whether or not they have made the right choice of spouse. It’s easier said than done to set criteria for that choice and then not look back. It is possible, however, to achieve a great deal of contentment and peace with your spouse if you practice mindfulness in your relationship.

Mindfulness in Relationships

What does this look like? In earlier articles, I stated that mindfulness is “attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli in the internal and external environments,” and it turns out that this is arguably the greatest pathway to satisfaction in relationships. Raising awareness nonjudgmentally about your irritations over your spouse’s spending habits, awareness of your spouse’s need for more support with household chores, your perceptions of the expectation of your mother-in-law about holiday traditions, and conflicting ideas about ideal parenting practices allow you to be a dispassionate observer of your inner and outer circumstances. “There’s that irritation again,” you might say to yourself, avoiding labeling it as “bad.” Labeling it bad is a practice which activates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight.

Instead, as the observer, you are in a position to practice the most effective optimistic practice, which is to scan the available options, determine the action that is most likely to yield positive results, and then take action. This mindful approach activates instead the parasympathetic nervous system, or the calming response. Wayne Jencke has written about activating the parasympathetic nervous system, as have Thayer and Lane. It also leads to more shared positive moments.

What is the goal of this nonjudgmental scanning? The goal is not to erase the irritation, but to work with it to continue moving forward. Your irritation with your spouse is like the boulder in the path of a stream. Beating yourself against the boulder, either through angry expletives or efforts to “make” him or her do what you want, will not yield positive results. Instead, you’ll both continue to be stuck at that spot in the stream.

It might seem that this approach would lead to passivity in the relationship, but that is not what happens. James W. Carson and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that people who engage in a mindful approach accurately assess the best ways to express their emotions, and when to do so. Conflict is not avoided, but navigated more successfully. Also, a clearer assessment of behaviors and dynamics leads to a greater chance that you will take action in unhealthy situations, such as your spouse spending the grocery money at the casino. As Leon points out, the mindful approach also does not preclude the expression of joy and passion, but leads instead to unconditional love. But it does promote, most of all, contentment, a positive state that gets a bad rap in our culture. Contentment is a powerful emotion, and is associated with high levels of well-being.

In her new book, Barbara Fredrickson states, “Love springs up anytime any two or more people connect over a shared positive emotion.” Mindfulness makes space for shared positive emotions to occur.

So I’d like to propose a mindful approach to Valentine’s Day and love in general. Why not do what makes sense in your relationship? Maybe it’s a dozen roses and a night of passionate lovemaking, but maybe it’s an amiable chat or a few hours spent doing separate but meaningful activities. And, most of all, excuse yourself of any expectations of the way love is supposed to be expressed.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the chapter on Love and Be Loved in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter,



Carson, J.W., Carson, K.M., Gil, K.M., & Baucom, D.H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35, 471-494.

Cronlund, K. (2009). Mindfulness Part 1: The best bang for your buck and Mindfulness Part 2: A Basis for Coaching. Positive Psychology News. Kirsten wrote an earlier version of this article that was published in 2009. However it is so appropriate for Valentine’s Day that we’re publishing it again with minor updates.

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

Frewen, P.A., Evans, E.M., Maraj, N., Dozois, D.J.A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting go: mindfulness and negative automatic thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 758-774.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Mitra, R., Franks, L., Richter, A., & Rockliff, H. (2008). Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(3), 182-191.

Leon, I., Hernandez, J.A., Rodriguez, S., & Vila, J. (2009). When head is tempered by heart: heart rate variability modulates perception of other-blame reducing anger. Motivation and Emotion, 33: 1–9.

Lyke, J.A. (2009). Insight, but not self-reflection, is related to subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 66-70.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.

Thayer, J.F. & Lane, R.D. (2009). Claude Bernard and the heart-brain connection: further elaboration of a model of neurovisceral integration. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 33, 81-88.

Photo Credits:
All via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Red roses courtesy of martinhoward
A good soak with a good novel courtesy of rebeccacbrown13
Positive moment courtesy of knittymarie
Working together courtesy of Mr. Thomas

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Kenny E. Williams 15 February 2013 - 12:04 am

Nice post! You note that mindfulness activates our parasympathetic nervous system, creating a calming effect in ourselves, while our sympathetic nervous system engages our flight or fight response. Even with all my studies on anatomy and physiological psychology,I have never quite connected the concept of mindfulness with our nervous system in quite this manner. It makes so much sense!

Happy Valentines Day and best wishes on the 364 days as well!

Kirsten Cronlund 15 February 2013 - 6:16 am

Thanks, Kenny. Yes, as we know, mindfulness has been around for a very long time. Eastern cultures have recognized its value without needing science to validate it, but it is fascinating to see the ways in which mindfulness leads to greater well being – in many aspects of life. Glad you enjoyed the article.


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