The classic comic strip “Love Is …” would carry some surprise endings if Barbara Fredrickson were writing it. Her decades of research into positive emotions has led her to some unsentimental conclusions. Among them, that love is … not lasting … not unconditional … not exclusive.
But Fredrickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, defines love more broadly, meaning it’s not as elusive as some of us think. She also credits love with nourishing our minds and bodies much more than romantic notions of it suggest.
Research shows the experience of love is measurable in cardiac vagal tone, the subtle variability in our heart rate. In “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become,” Fredrickson shares the tools to let us experience more love.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Q: How do you define love?
A: I’m defining love as any micromoment in which we share a positive emotion with another person — soul mate, sister or stranger. It’s marked by a biobehavioral synchrony that unfolds across two bodies and brains at once. You’re not only sharing a feeling but also body movement, like nonverbal behaviors, and there’s a mirroring of biochemistry and neurofirings. There’s a mirroring in what you can see and also what is unseen but can be detected with different scientific measures.
Q: What is cardiac vagal tone, and how does that play into love?
A: It reflects the functioning of what’s called the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve. It connects the brain to the heart and to other organs. We measure its effective functioning by looking at a very subtle form of arrhythmia in the heart, a healthy form. It’s basically reflected by a pattern of a slightly increasing heart rate while you’re breathing in, relative to a slightly decreased heart rate while you’re breathing out.
Vagal tone is viewed as pretty stable, like your height at adulthood. But it sets people up for being physically healthier, not just in terms of cardiovascular health but in the way their bodies regulate glucose and the immune response. In addition, it’s associated with better psychological functioning, a better ability to regulate attention and emotions, and better ability to connect with other people. So it’s actually central to what psychologists call the social engagement system.
People with higher vagal tone — higher is better — experience more positive connection in daily life and they get more out of our meditations that are designed to teach skills for connecting. But learning skills for connecting also raises vagal tone. It’s a positive feedback loop. That’s how these loving connections can really drive you toward health and better functioning.
Q: Is romantic love overrated?
A: People sometimes think that if they don’t have a romantic relationship then they have no love in their life. If you believe that strongly it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This new perspective of what love is is extraordinarily hopeful and helpful.
Q: What is the most critical deficit in regard to love?
A: Technology is a huge barrier. But also, people can’t experience these micromoments unless they feel safe. Loneliness and depression and anxiety are enough to make people feel unsafe when they interact with other people.
If we feel in some ways we’re inferior to people, (that) is usually an illusion — there isn’t some rank of who’s better. And if we allow ourselves to see that and not make social comparisons, that can make us feel a lot safer and more open.
Q: How can your findings apply to marriage?
A: It takes a lot of work to keep a marriage going, people always say. But this gives you a specific focus on, what is that work? It can be planning fun things that allow you to experience these micromoments, which serve as booster shots. You do actually need to be proactive about creating opportunities to share positive emotion. It is in some ways work, but it can and should be fun.