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How Love Creates Health

written by Shannon Polly 13 August 2013

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.

Love contributes to health.

It doesn’t stop with counting blessings. It’s not abstract. It’s deeply physical.

Let’s follow the argument made by Barbara Fredrickson during the IPPA World Congress.

Broad and Build Review

Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory explains why humans have evolved to have positive emotions. What good are they? What is their functional value?

  • Positive emotions expand awareness. Minds can open or close, and positive emotions lead to openness.
  • Positive emotions build resources. We are all socially connected, and positive emotions are nutrients, like fruits and veggies, for these relationships.
  • Positive emotions unlock other-focus and help us break self absorption.

With positive emotions, connections become more salient. Perspective taking improves, and divisions fade.

What Love is Not

Building up to a description of what love is and does, Fredrickson was careful to talk about what love is NOT:

  • Love is not sexual desire.
  • Love is not a special bond with a partner or family.
  • Love is not commitment.
  • Love is not exclusive.
  • Love is not lasting. No emotion lasts long.
  • Love is not unconditional.

This last bullet threw me for a loop, but we’ll get back to it below.

What is Love?

There are two areas of the social sciences that study love: emotion science and relationship science.

Relationship science casts love as

  • Investment in the well-being of the other for his or her own sake
  • Perceived responsiveness, or ‘he/she gets me’, the feeling of being understood, validated, and cared for

As a researcher in the emotion science realm, Fredrickson claims that emotion science can add:

  • A momentary lens of seconds and minutes. You aren’t invested in your spouse’s well-being every moment of the day. Emotions are fleeting.
  • Biobehavioral components. This is where mind and body are fused together.

Love is interpersonally situated experience marked by momentary increments in shared positive emotions, biobehavioral synchrony, and mutual care. Over time this builds: embodied rapport (we really ‘clicked’), social bonds, and commitment. In her book, Love 2.0, Fredrickson calls all of this positivity resonance.

So if love builds all of these things, why is love not unconditional? (I told you I would get back to this.) Well, love’s first precondition is safety. People do not experience love when they feel threatened. Love’s second precondition is connection. It means love is much easier when we are in the same space, have eye contact, and have touch and/or shared voice.

Smiles Matter

Research shows that smiles draw attention, and eye contact causes mimicry, which creates inter-subjectivity. All smiles aren’t created equal. Some are genuine, some are warm, some are social fakery, some imply feelings of social superiority, and so on. Mimicry helps us differentiate among different kinds of smiles. When we mimic someone else’s smile, the similarity in neural responses informs our guts. We are cut off from that wisdom if we don’t have eye contact.

That led to another interesting question. What is the evolutionary purpose of smiling? Various scientists have different explanations:

  • Ekman: To express positivity
  • Bachorowski and Owren: To evoke positivity (They started with laughter evoking laughter.)
  • Niedenthal and colleagues: To evoke inter-subjectivity
  • Gervais and Sloan Wilson: To broaden collective mindsets and build collective resources

According to Fredrickson, the answer is: All of the above.

Phone versus Heart

Fredrickson wrote a fantastic article for the NY Times Opinion column called Your Phone vs. Your Heart. For an entire week it was the most emailed article on the Times website.

Many readers took issue with it because it said that you should not be on your phone while you are nursing your baby. As a nursing mother, I would say that I’d never get anything done if I didn’t occasionally check my phone while I was nursing my baby.

But Fredrickson makes a good point, “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.” There is a use it or lose it logic here, just as there is for muscles.

“So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.” ~ Barbara Fredrickson

How does Love Contribute to Health?

Fredrickson has done a lot of research on the relationship between positivity resonance and vagal tone, the quality of the connection between brain and heart. With high vagal tone, there is a very subtle variability in heart rate. The heart slows down when breathing in and speeds up when breathing out. The higher the vagal tone, the greater the heart rate variability. Those with higher vagal tone tend to have

  • Better attention and emotion regulation
  • Better social skills
  • Better heart regulation
  • Better immune function
  • More micromoments of positivity resonance (PR)

Fredrickson has used loving kindness meditation (LKM) as an intervention to increase the experience of positivity resonance and has explored its relationship to vagal tone. The interrelationship is complicated. First, the higher the vagal tone to begin with, the more people appear to get out of a daily practice of LKM. But LKM can lead to more social connectedness and more shared positive emotion, which appear to increase vagal tone.

Thus the conceptual model is circular. Positive emotion leads to more perceived social connections which then leads to higher vagal tone. Higher vagal tone means you can extract more from the LKM intervention. Higher vagal tone also predicts the positive emotion yield of LKM. People who practiced LKM had more social connections and increases in vagal tone. Further studies are exploring the level and direction of causality.

So it appears that love creates health, and health creates love.

If Woody Allen was right and 98% of life is just showing up, apparently a large percentage of love is showing up too.


For more on Barbara Fredrickson’s work, visit the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (a.k.a. PEPLab) or the site for her new book, Love 2.0. Dr. Fredrickson is teaching a master class on love for Mentor Coach, starting September 24, 2013.

Bachorowoski, J. & Owren, D. (2004). Laughing Matters. APA Science Brief.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Your phone vs your heart. New York Times Sunday Review.

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

Gervais, M. & Wilson, D. S. (2005). The Evolutions and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” Quarterly Review of Biology. Press release: The first laugh: New study posits evolutionary origins of two distinct types of laughter.

Hegi, K., & Bergner, R. (2010). What is love? An empirically-based essentialist
account. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 620-636.
(reis, clark and holmes, 2004)

Johnson, K. J. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2005). “We all look the same to me:” Positive emotions eliminate the own-race bias in face recognition. Psychological Science, 16, 875-881.

Johnson, K. J., Waugh, C. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Smile to see the forest: Facially expressed positive emotions broaden cognition. Cognition & Emotion, 24, 299-321.

Keltner, D., Ekman, P., Gonzaga, G. C., & Beer, J. (2009). Facial Expression of Emotion. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Sherer, & H. H. Goldsmith, Handbook of Affective Sciences (pp. 415-432). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

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.

Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (in press). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science.

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

Waugh, C. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). Nice to know you: Positive emotions, self-other overlap, and complex understanding in the formation of new relationships. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 93-106.

Photo Credit: Most via Compfight with a Creative Commons License
Barbara Fredrickson courtesy of Lesley Lyle
Smile Mimicry courtesy of Toni Blay
Nursing Mother courtesy of HoboMama
Shared Joy courtesy of Photosightfaces

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tiggy 13 August 2013 - 2:46 pm

Shannon – Bottom line in Fredricksons research is no vagal tone – no upward spiral.

So vagal tone seems to be a gateway.

Then the question becomes what can we do to increase vagal tone 0 think exercise, meditation, sleep, sex and Mediterranean diet

Interestingly all missing from PERMA

On a side note, I lost my iphone and didn’t replace it for the reasons BF suggests. And it also gives me time for the vagal tone activities mentioned above.

Shannon Polly 13 August 2013 - 2:58 pm

Great summation, Tiggy.

Yes, PERMA has been criticized for not including a physical element.

Is a mediterranean diet specifically linked to vagal tone?

I’m impressed you have time for all of those things! Perhaps I should throw away my phone for a day (or week).


Angus Skinner 13 August 2013 - 3:23 pm

Great clarity in writing Shannon.
Upward spirals indeed, The physicality matters – from the touch of birth to the touch of old age.
Thank you for this.

Shannon Polly 13 August 2013 - 3:34 pm

Thank you, Angus, for reading!

tiggy 13 August 2013 - 6:01 pm

Shannon – yes vagal tone is associated with Mediterranean diet, moderate wine consumption, omega 3’s and vegetarian diets

Perhaps the title could be reversed – how health creates love?

Lisa Sansom 14 August 2013 - 11:54 am

Thanks for this Shannon – it’s a great summary of her talk! As to “tiggy”‘s comments, we have to be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. But I think “tiggy” already knows that. 🙂

tiggy 14 August 2013 - 2:04 pm

Lisa – agreed re causation/correlation. As you know generally I am careful with this distinction.

Most of what I have mentioned appears to be causation – the exception being the Mediterranean diet and wine consumption – too many confounding factors

I have just read a study showing that there is also a golden mean with vagal tone – too much can be also problematic.

Amanda Horne 15 August 2013 - 2:53 am

Hi Shannon

A great article, thank you. Interesting to read your summary of relationship science, which led me to think that it’s only a matter of time before ‘love’ is an acceptable word in the workplace.


Shannon Polly 18 August 2013 - 2:50 pm

Interesting, Tiggy, that a lot of it is actually causation. Would be interested to see the study on vagal tone if you want to pass along the link.

Thanks, Amanda. It wasn’t my summary of relationship science, but Barbara’s. And yes, we may be closer to not thinking of Love as a four letter word.

A minister friend of mine said, “You may want to
compare your findings with I Corinthians chapter 13, the bible chapter on
love. I believe the research would assist in developing your bullet points.”

So that is an interesting angle too.

tiggy 19 August 2013 - 7:06 am

Shannon – article as requested



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