At this point, we’re hip to the realities of love. Not all relationships start with a meet cute in a bookstore; not all unions carry on happily ever after. So we’ve adjusted our expectations. A new book, however, suggests that our conception of love might require a whole lot more adjustment. Healthy, life-affirming love, it suggests, isn’t exclusive to committed relationships, nor does it really involve relationships at all. Instead, the theory goes, love is something that can be found in the moments of positive human interaction that occur every day.
The idea comes from a book called Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, and a piece over at the Atlantic summarizes its findings. Fredrickson, we learn, is a “leading researcher of positive emotions” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For her book, she looked at the scientific underpinnings of love–the things about love that make our brains and bodies feel good–and developed a totally new understanding of the concept. Love, Fredrickson posits, is simply a “micro-moment of positivity resonance,” essentially any small interaction in which we genuinely connect with another human.
The teller at the bank who made you smile? That’s love. The career-affirming conversation you had with your boss? That’s love, too. Emily Esfahni Smith, the writer of the Atlantic piece, gives us the contours of this strange new love:
You have to physically be with the person to experience the micro-moment. For example, if you and your significant other are not physically together–if you are reading this at work alone in your office–then you two are not in love. You may feel connected or bonded to your partner–you may long to be in his company–but your body is completely loveless.
To understand why, it’s important to see how love works biologically. Like all emotions, love has a biochemical and physiological component. But unlike some of the other positive emotions, like joy or happiness, love cannot be kindled individually–it only exists in the physical connection between two people. Specifically, there are three players in the biological love system–mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. Each involves connection and each contributes to those micro-moment of positivity resonance that Fredrickson calls love.
Smith goes on to describe the workings of each of those three systems in greater detail. The evidence is compelling, but also a bit upsetting. Does this mean we’re wrong to seek stable, monogamous relationships? Is science killing marriage? Not exactly, I don’t think. A significant other just guarantees a certain amount of brain-and-body-nourishing micro-love moments each day. What Fredrickson’s thinking does do, though, is make the whole thing a bit more accessible. Or, as she puts it, it “lowers the bar of love.” So if you’re stuck without a date tonight, you might not be totally out of luck. Just try making some genuinely good small talk with the cashier at the supermarket.