When Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, he took a familiar phenomenon and looked at it through a more discerning lens. In doing so he changed forever the way we think about this natural and common wonder. Now, Barbara Fredrickson may have done for love what Freud did for dreams. At the core of her thesis is that by understanding what love is — and isn’t — we can endeavor to experience more of it in our lives.
Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one of the leading researchers in positive emotions. She is well qualified to discuss the relevant research on love. Her earlier work on positivity and her “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions has advanced our understanding of how the form and function of positive emotions increases our awareness. In so doing, it also encourages novel thoughts and behaviors while building skills and developing resources.
This upward emotional spiral directly contrasts with the limiting, downward, and survival-based thoughts and behaviors associated with negativity. With Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, Fredrickson brings her talent as a researcher and writer to bear on love, what she refers to as our supreme emotion.
Fredrickson notes that love is indeed an emotion. By definition, no emotion is designed to last, but love is renewable. She focuses on the body’s perspective of love, not simply the romantic view. The mutual caring that underlies love is identified as “positivity resonance,” which involves micro-moments of shared positive emotion. It is the confluence of biochemistry and behavior, particularly initiated through the eyes, Fredrickson maintains, that gives us these micro-moments.
In this way, Fredrickson is proposing a general theory of love rather than how love might be specifically experienced within a domain. This is a bold and radical approach. Fredrickson believes that love, as defined by these moments of positivity resonance, is the same whether the moments occur between parent and child, friends, lovers, or total strangers. Without a doubt, Fredrickson believes these experiences are, in her words, “virtually identical.”
The scaffolding of theory and research findings to reach this conclusion begins with the view that evolution has designed us to love as a means for survival. Fredrickson then builds on work and research from developmental psychology. She starts with attachment theory, infant bonding, and the understanding of synchronization and desynchronization, specifically that positive emotions breed synchrony and depression does not. This idea of attunement and being in sync is central to the understanding of positivity resonance, and Fredrickson makes her case from three primary perspectives: oxytocin activation, vagal tone, and mirror neurons, or what has been called “brain coupling.”
She cites research by Uri Hasson at Princeton and his colleagues, who examined people engaged in conversation while their brain activity was monitored by an fMRI. Synchronization, or brain coupling, happens during communication. The communication improves based on the degree to which the brain synchronizes. Apparently, when a conversation is being enjoyed, the brain does more than listen and respond. It seems to actually forecast and anticipate what the other person will say.
The research shows that when brains are in sync, the neural coupling allows us to really understand someone else. This, along with other studies Fredrickson quotes, supports the notion that positivity resonance generates reciprocal empathy, which then becomes a mutually shared physical phenomenon in the brain. In other words, two brains are having one experience.
Fredrickson then draws on her own research with colleagues, showing that people with higher vagal tone experience more moments of positivity resonance. The vagus nerve connects our brain to our heart. It is integrated in everything from the physiognomy of our smile and eye contact with others to monitoring the middle ear muscles so we can focus on another person’s voice.
Vagal tone is the term given to the association of heart rate to breathing rate. The higher the vagal tone the better. People with high vagal tone typically have more and better positive connections and are more loving. This is possible because they can focus better, manage their feelings better, and have higher social intelligence.
Vagal tone once was thought to be as stable as one’s height and not directly alterable. Fredrickson’s own research on vagal tone and love was so important she was invited to present it to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in 2010 — it is perhaps the most dramatic feature of her work. Her research showed there is an evidence-based reason for hope: She was able to prove that mind training can improve vagal tone.
In her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) lab she randomly assigned subjects to engage in loving-kindness meditation (LKM), the ancient Buddhist practice of fostering positive feelings toward the self and others. There are many variations, but the practice involves an intention to become aware of others by hoping for them to experience the feelings of loving kindness, to feel safe and protected, to be healthy in mind and body, and to be at ease and happy. The participants practiced less than an hour a week. Their vagal tone compared to a control group soared after a few months of this daily practice. Those who had the largest increases in vagal tone had the most frequent positivity resonance experiences with others.
This is a game changer. Fredrickson has demonstrated that love isn’t something we just fall into: We can make it.
Add to this the research on oxytocin, also known as “the great facilitator of life” because of its role in mother-infant bonding, social connection, and lovemaking. This neuropeptide is released during heightened engagement with another and is part of our response to “calm-and-connect” with others. It makes us more trusting and open to others. Fredrickson discusses research that demonstrates that people under the influence of oxytocin attend more to people’s eyes and smiles and cues that are associated with positive social connections.
This means that positivity resonance lasts only as long as people are engaged. In other words, while reading this review you are not in love.
Herein lies the most troublesome feature of Fredrickson’s thesis. She does not discuss by way of extension or refute other theories of love such as Robert Sternberg’s work on passion, intimacy, and commitment. Most notably missing is A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, & Richard Lannon. In the latter, they used a term — limbic resonance — to describe the activation of the brain during a love connection. Positivity resonance has a broader meaning, but a nod to the earlier theorists would have been appropriate.
The confusion comes when “love” is lumped together with a glance or a conversation with a person on line at Starbucks and staring into your lover’s eyes while you are naked. Here Fredrickson would have done better to label it Love2 because in promoting a general rather than domain-specific theory, the intimacy dimension gets lost. A Gallup poll done last year identified that most people are looking for a special person to love, and that most people who have one say that person is the top source of happiness in their life. Fredrickson’s response to this? In the book she says it is a “worldwide collapse of imagination.”
It will be a hard sell to lump all love in the same basket for most people. Even after reading all the evidence, this reviewer is left with the sense that love is likely to be distinguished by levels of intimacy — at least a Love1, the kind people are talking about looking for, and Love2, of the Starbucks variety.
But reviewer bias aside, the truth is that Fredrickson’s work is more detailed and anchored than anything that has come before it, and what I’ve learned from all of it is that our body was designed for love. Just as flowers’ heliotropic nature bends them toward the sun, we need nourishment and are drawn to love.
And like Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, my guess is that Fredrickson’s view of love will evolve as more research is done, and along the way it will stimulate great discussion and debate: exactly what good science — and a good scientist — is supposed to do.
Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become
Hudson Street Press, January, 2013
Hardcover, 256 pages