Love Improves Your Health

Barbara Fredrickson reports some of her research findings in her new book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, and she comes to some radical conclusions.

In a January 24 special to CNN she writes, “The vision of love that emerges from the latest science requires a radical shift. Love is not romance. It’s not sexual desire. It’s not even that special bond you feel with family or significant others. And perhaps most challenging of all, love is neither lasting nor unconditional. The radical shift we need to make is this: Love, as your body experiences it, is a micro-moment of connection shared with another.”

Fredrickson asserts that love is not exclusive, nor reserved for your most intimate partner or circle of friends.  As long as you feel safe and the right conditions are in place you can experience love with either a soul mate or a stranger.

The resonance that can spark between two people comes from our hard wiring as human beings.  Synchronicity with another person attunes both people’s gestures, biochemistries and even aligns neural firings in both brains simultaneously.  The good feelings and mutual caring is a resonant wave that rolls through both bodies simultaneously and momentarily.

She asserts that love does not belong exclusively to one other person.  As advanced primates we have evolved systems designed to attune to and receive the emotional presence of all who are around you, making your prospects for a momentary experience of love essentially limitless.  However, it is clear that this condition does not always manifest.  Both people need to be emotionally present for the attunement to happen.  For example, her research demonstrates that high quality eye contact is one of the necessary portals for this synchrony.

Good news resulting from her research is that these experience of love make you healthier.  What seem to be short-lived experiences have disproportionately large effects on our biology.

When her research team trained one study group how to create these micro-moments of love, they developed a lasting improvement in the function of the vagus nerve, a brainstem nerve key to the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal “tone” subconsciously regulates the resting state of most of the body’s internal organs, including the heart rate, lungs, eyes, adrenal glands and digestion.  Good vagal tone is consistently associated with both mental and physical health, better mental and motor functioning, and more satisfying social interactions with others. Vagal tone was once thought of to be a relatively fixed measure in each individual, but recent research, including Fredrickson’s, indicates a significant capacity for a person to improve vagal tone, including using these practices of loving interactions.

Another result of these fleeting feelings of love were increases in the vigor and number of immune cells and an associated increase in overall health.

Fredrickson describes an upward spiral in which “…love begets love by improving your health. And health begets health by improving your capacity for love.”

Although the bond between two people in a long term relationship or marriage may be a constant, steady force, the love within that relationship is transitory.  To keep the feeling of connection alive, she asserts that both people must continually show up and spark the passion over and over again.  To take love for granted can result in complacency about finding the moments of shared love and drain the feelings of connection.

Inspiringly, as Fredrickson advises us, “One of the most hopeful things I learned is that when people take just a minute or so each day to think about whether they felt connected and attuned to others, they initiate a cascade of benefits. And this is something you could start doing today, having learned even just this much more about how love works.”

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Barbara Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her new book is Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.

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