What does it mean to say that I love my husband, Jeff?
I used to think it meant that 18-plus years ago, I fell in love with him—so much so that I abandoned my crusty attitude toward marriage, and chose to dive right in. I used to uphold love as that constant, steady force that defines my relationship with Jeff. I thought of love the way most people do: as something exclusive, lasting, and unconditional.
Of course that constant, steady force still exists between us, as a bond that transcends moments in time. But my work as a scientist throws love into a new light and reveals it as more fleeting than I once thought it was.
I’ve concluded that love, as your body sees it, is the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events:
- A sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another;
- A synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors;
- A reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.
My shorthand for this trio is positivity resonance. This back-and-forth reverberation of positive energy sustains itself—and can even grow stronger—until the momentary connection wanes—which is of course inevitable, because that’s how emotions work.
Here’s something that’s hard to admit: If I take my body’s perspective on love seriously, it means that right now—at this very moment in which I’m crafting this sentence—I do not love my husband. Our positivity resonance, after all, only lasts as long as long as we two are physically or emotionally engaged with one another. Bonds last. Love doesn’t.
The good news is that love is a renewable resource. That bond I share with Jeff forges a deep and abiding sense of safety within our relationship, a safety that tills the soil for frequent moments of love. Knowing now that, from our bodies’ perspective, love is positivity resonance—nutrient-rich bursts that accrue to make Jeff, me, and the bond we share healthier—shakes us out of any complacency that tempts us to take our love for granted, as a mere attribute of our relationship.
Love, this new view tells us with some urgency, is something we should re-cultivate every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. Seeing love as positivity resonance motivates us to more often reach out for a hug, or share an inspiring or silly idea or image over breakfast. With practice, you can learn to generate love anytime you wish, and in doing so, steer you and the one you love toward health, happiness, and your higher ground. Here are five ways to make that happen.
1. Look into their eyes—as often as possible
You no doubt try to “stay connected” when physical distance keeps you and your loved ones apart. You use the phone, email, texts, or Facebook, and it’s important to do so. Yet your body, sculpted by the forces of natural selection over millennia, was not designed for the abstractions of long-distance love, the XOXs and LOLs. Your body hungers for more. It hungers for moments of oneness.
Feelings of oneness surface when two or more people “sync up” and literally come to act as one, moving to the same hidden beat. When you especially resonate with someone else, the two of you are quite literally on the same wavelength, biologically. True connection is one of love’s bedrock prerequisites—and a prime reason that love is not unconditional. True connection is physical and unfolds in real time; it is neither abstract nor mediated. It requires a sensory and temporal co-presence of bodies.
The main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact. Other forms of real-time sensory contact—through touch, voice, or mirrored body postures and gestures—no doubt connect people as well and at times can substitute for eye contact. Nevertheless, eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness.
To be clear, the sensory and temporal connections you establish with others through physical contact, conversation, or other forms of behavioral synchrony are not, in and of themselves, love. Even holding hands, after all, can become a loveless habit.
Yet in the right contexts, meeting eyes or connecting in other ways can become a springboard for love. The right contexts are those infused with safety and the emotional presence of positivity, which couples can cultivate over time and use to find new moments of love.
2. Seek opportunities for cooperative silliness
A study I conducted with former Greater Good Science Center fellow Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk of first-time meetings between strangers tells us that nonverbal signs of oneness forecast a shared subjective appreciation of oneness and connection. That’s why dancing or canoeing could be better bets for first-date bonding than simply catching a movie or sharing a meal.
But the glue that positivity resonance offers isn’t just for connecting once-strangers at the start of new relationships. It also further cements long-standing ties, making them even more secure and satisfying.
Art and Elaine, a long-term married couple living in Long Island, New York, learned this fact in a surprising way. They agreed to participate in a study on the “factors that affect relationships”—but were flabbergasted when the researcher used Velcro bands to tie Art and Elaine’s wrists and ankles together.
She told them that their task was to crawl on their hands and knees as fast as they could to the far end of the lab and back, clearing a barrier in each direction. All the while, they’d need to hold a cylinder-shaped pillow off the floor without using their hands, arms, or teeth. If they could complete this absurd task in less than a minute, she told them, they’d win a bag of candy.
It didn’t take long for Art and Elaine to discover that they could only hold the pillow up by pressing it between their torsos, which made their bound-crawling all the more challenging. They toppled over several times, laughing uncontrollably. By their third attempt, they finally got their limbs into sync. They beat the clock and won the prize—all smiles and (once unbound) high fives!
It turned out some couples in the study didn’t have nearly as much fun as did Elaine and Art. By the flip of a coin, they were assigned to a far more mundane and slow-paced crawling task: Never bound by Velcro, each member of these couples took turns crawling very slowly across the mat, while rolling a ball ahead of them.
What the researchers hypothesized—and would find here and in their other experiments—is that couples who were assigned to the fun-filled task actually came to love each other more deeply; they reported greater relationship quality on the follow-up surveys and showed more accepting and fewer hostile behaviors in their follow-up discussions. Engaging in this silly, childlike activity together actually deepened loving feelings and strengthened bonds, even within long-standing intimate relationships.
And that’s why couples who regularly do new, exciting, and even silly things together have better quality marriages. See how helpful science can be?
3. Turn unlikely moments into shared history
Intimacy is that safe and comforting feeling you get with the knowledge that this other person truly understands and appreciates you. Your mutual sense of trust, perhaps reinforced by your commitments of loyalty to each other, allows each of you to be more open with each other than either of you would be elsewhere.
Within these safe environs of intimacy, love can spring up in the most unlikely moments.
More than a decade ago, for instance, I was driving through my hometown with my husband, finding my way to a corner store I’d been to only once or twice before. Coming up on the backside of the store, I turned left into what I figured was the back entrance, planning to make my way around the parking lot to the storefront. Only it wasn’t really an entrance. It was just a short gravel road that led nowhere. I stopped the car and stared at the distant storefront. I’m sure I was only frozen like that for a matter of seconds, but husband found it amusing. “Stuck on a gravel road?” he chided. We shared a laugh at my deer-in-the-headlights response.
I can’t tell you how many times in the years since Jeff has resurrected this phrase to gently tease me for being a bit slow to figure out an unexpected situation. Knowing me so well, he gets that surprises can stall me out for a moment (or six). Yet instead of taking this recurrence as a character flaw to overlook, or as cause for annoyance or criticism, it’s become our running inside joke. Ever an alchemist, he transforms predicaments like these into micro-moments of love. Love that not only brings me swiftly back into action, but that also reinforces the safety of our bond.
Your intimates offer you history, safety, trust, and openness in addition to the frequent opportunity to connect. The more trusting and open you are with someone else—and the more trusting and open that person is with you—the more points of connection each of you may find over which to share a laugh, or a common source of intrigue, serenity, or delight.
4. Take time to appreciate the good things
In collaboration with my colleague Sara Algoe, I’ve explored how kindness and appreciation flow back and forth within couples, creating tender moments of positivity resonance that also serve to nourish intimacy and relationship growth.
We learned from this work that some people tend to say “thanks” better than others. Genuine feelings of appreciation or gratitude, after all, well up when you recognize that someone else went out of their way to do something nice for you. Another way to say this is that the script for gratitude involves both a benefit, or kind deed, and a benefactor, the kind person behind the kind deed. Whereas many people express their appreciation to others by shining a spotlight on the benefit they received—the gift, favor, or the kind deed itself—we discovered that, by contrast, the best “thank-yous” simply use the benefit as a spring- board toward shining a spotlight on the good qualities of the other person, their benefactor.
Done well, then, expressing appreciation for your partner’s kindness to you can become a kind gesture in return, one that conveys that you see and appreciate in your partner’s actions their good and inspiring qualities.
How did we know that this is the best way to convey appreciation? Because compared to expressions that merely focus on benefits, those that also focus on benefactors make the partner who hears that “thanks” feel understood, cared for, and validated. And this good feeling—the feeling that their partner really “gets” them and cherishes them— allows people to walk around each day feeling better about themselves and better about their relationship. And in six months’ time, it forecast becoming even more solid and satisfied their relationship.
Saying “thanks” well then isn’t just a matter of being polite, it’s a matter of being loving, and becoming a stronger version of what together you call “us.”
5. Take your positive emotions to the bank
Sooner or later, a long-term relationship will hit a rough patch.
John Gottman, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on emotions within marriage, tells couples that they can “bank” their shared positive emotions to help them through later tough times. Through decades of meticulous research, Gottman discovered that couples who experience higher ratios of positive to negative emotions with each other, are better able to navigate disagreements and upsets.
When discussing difficult topics, for instance, they tend to refrain from mirroring each other’s distress and negativity with their own. Instead, they de-escalate any conflict (or potential conflict) by meeting their partner’s negativity with something altogether different, often making some caring, affirming, or light-hearted comment or gesture that creates space for reflection.
Put differently, couples with rich recent histories of positivity resonance are better equipped to defuse the emotional bombs that threaten them both.
You can “bank” positivity resonance and draw on it later because momentary experiences of love and other positive emotions build resources. In other words, the small investments you deposit in the so- called bank don’t just sit there. They accumulate, earn interest, and pay out dividends in the form of durable resources that you can later draw on to face a new adversity.
Moreover, just as money earned in one arena can be spent in other arenas, the positivity resonance that you create within certain relationships can build personal resources in you—values, beliefs, and skills—that help you navigate all manner of social upsets and difficulties. Having a loving marriage, then, can help you be more resilient within your work team. Sharing more moments of positivity resonance within schools and neighborhoods, for instance, may help whole nations be more resilient during tough times.
Resilience matters now more than ever, both your personal resilience, as well as the collective resilience that you cultivate within your family, your community, your nation and our world. No matter how resilient you are today, higher levels of resilience are readily within your grasp.
That’s because genuine positive emotions are available to you at any time. And when you connect with others over these good feelings, you create a positivity resonance that energizes and strengthens the metaphorical connective tissue that binds you. Love and resilience are forever renewable resources.