As a February baby (and hopeless romantic), I've always had a bit of a fixation on Valentine's day. As an adult, I am thoroughly aware of the commercialization and degradation of this otherwise potentially transcendental human experience called "love." Despite all of the ways this word, this experience, has been distorted and misconstrued over the years, it remains as a powerful, undeniable truth that we all crave and need love, and when we receive it, we thrive. This is a scientific fact.
Let's start with the classical studies by Harry Harlow, examining love in the context of infant monkeys . In one variation of these studies, infant rhesus monkeys were brought into the lab and given an option to interact with two "surrogate mother" figures : one was made of soft terrycloth , the other of wire mesh. Harlow found that the monkeys preferred spending time with the terry cloth "mother", offering its softness and warmth, even when the wire "mother" provided the main source of milk. Interactions with the terrycloth "mother" also predicted healthy development in the monkeys. These studies suggest that primates are hardwired to crave emotional attachment and soothing physical touch. Furthermore, these early "love" experiences promote healthy development.
Studies of children raised in Romanian orphanages also found this connection. Historically, children raised in these institutions have been often deprived of touch and social interaction, as many of these institutions were understaffed with caretakers. Years later, researchers found that touch deprivation in these children was correlated with poor physical and emotional development .
Across many decades of research, we find this trend repeated over and over again: healthy attachment and affection predicts human growth and thriving . But most of us think about love as something that reaches beyond these basic physiological needs. In addition to the physical need for affection, the experience of love is often described as a kind of elevated positive emotion, with the potential to "uplift" and "transform" the people experiencing it .
My favorite way of thinking about love comes from Barbara Fredrickson who describes the experience of love as something that can be created as a "micro-moment of positivity resonance" or moments in which two people find a meaningful connection with each other . Love doesn't have to be that rare and special bond found only in fairy-tale romances. According to Fredrickson's view, this connection can be made at any time between any persons: with your romantic partner of course, but also with your child, your friends, or even a complete stranger. Something as simple as gazing into the eyes of another person with intimacy and kindness can become a micro-moment of love. In my own experience, I have found these opportunities for micro-moments to be ubiquitous, once I turned my attention to them.
Although the Valentine's holiday is technically over, I encourage you to continue to harness this power of love in your life, in any way you can. Try it today: Spend time in the physical presence of someone you love, hug someone you care about, or smile at a stranger. You can also practice a version of the Hawaiian meditation known as "ho'oponopono:" simply meditate on the resonance of the words "I love you." You can silently speak these words towards others in meditation or direct these words to yourself. In this way, love isn't something that happens to you, that you "fall" into. Love is intentional action. In choosing when and how to use this word and call upon its power, we shape the new meaning of love. Taking the time to create more love in your life is just another path to well-being.
- Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673.
- Blackwell, P. L. (2000). The Influence of Touch on Child Development: Implications for Intervention. Infants & Young Children, 13, 25-39.
- Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review, 30, 367-383.
- Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, 275, 289.
- Frederickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Extreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. New York: Hudson Street Press.