The one choice that changes us all

When I was a kid, to be loved was the experience of having a comfortable life watching cartoons, eating my favorite foods, hanging out with my cousins, and being able to get the toys that I really wanted. This was when it was good.

As a teenager, I thought love was an intense emotion that I felt about some girl, some band, or some other interest that I thought about all the time. This is when it started to get confusing.

As an adult, love was manifested in choosing to share my whole life with someone, to depend on that person in ways that I couldn’t manage on my own, and to grow into a person that they could also depend on in return, accepting them for who they were and welcoming the experience of receiving the same acceptance in return. This is when I started to learn – to truly matter to someone else, and have that person matter to me.

As a parent, love is a natural feeling of connection, responsibility, and of warmth to the miniature human beings that live in my house that seemingly receive so much more than they give, and yet what they do give to me could not be any more fulfilling. This is when I knew that love is essential.

“All you need is love.” – the Beatles, touching on the truth that we need love to flourish.

All the way on the opposite end of the spectrum, we know both through experience and through multidisciplinary research that a lack of love leads to delays in development, relationship struggles in life, and a higher risk for psychiatric issues (see here). Infants who don’t receive enough human touch are at risk for significant delays in physical and mental growth. Children who grow up in orphanages also struggle with both physical and psychological development. Examining the experiences of loneliness and isolation show that they are a significant health risk equal to that of diabetes or morbid obesity. Lifespan research following a group of Harvard graduates from the late 1940’s to the present day reveals that the presence or absence of “warmth” from their parents was the most predictive factor in separating the most successful, longest living, healthiest and happiest people from the rest of the group.

“We all need love.” – Science, revealing the truth that we need love to survive.

Defining Love – According to Research

Well what exactly is love? According to emotions researcher Barbara Fredrickson, author of LOVE 2.0 this is what it is:

“First and foremost, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. As for all positive emotions, the inner feeling love brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant — it feels extraordinarily good, the way a long, cool drink of water feels when you’re parched on a hot day. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micro-moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you — what lies beyond your skin — relax and become more permeable. While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.”

So love is an emotion experienced in real time, shared between people, that creates a sense of openness, intimacy, empathy, and positivity in all that share the feeling – both in the giver and receiver of love. But more than a good feeling, love has a measurable positive effect on those that experience it frequently. I previously wrote about how developing and maintaining self-worth is the foundation of all mental healthiness, and an interwoven thread as to how this is accomplished is through meaningful relationships. You are most likely to have a deep sense of self-worth if you felt loved as a child. You are most likely to have an ongoing sense of self-worth throughout your life if you have stable loving relationships. So if you were to pick one strategy to implement into your life so as to improve your lifelong healthiness and to make a difference in the people in your life – it would be to choose to love. But can we actually choose love? Yes we can.

Dr. Fredrickson goes on to describe how we experience this shared positive emotion of love, which requires three simultaneous ingredients: 1) presence, 2) time, and 3) mutual responsiveness.

Presence – the experience of truly being in the same mental space with someone. Physical proximity, touch, eye-contact all reinforce this feeling of being truly present with another. Distance and distraction make it hard to be truly present.

Time – the more time that we spend with someone, the greater presence they have in our minds even when absent. In psychodynamic terms, this is the idea of object-constancy, which is facilitated by having secure attachments early in life. More time also creates a growing level of comfort that facilitates openness. It also reinforces familiarity which in turn creates an ease in engagement. All of these naturally lead to vulnerability, which despite its risks is a requirement to love and be loved. Time is the factor that elevates a sense of connection to feelings of closeness. It is the difference maker between our social connections and our intimate relationships.

Mutual Responsiveness – this is the real-time experience of both giving and receiving – being the one responsible to fulfill the other’s needs, and also being the recipient of another person’s positive attention towards our own needs. A mutual responsiveness is required since the emotion of love is unique in that it is a shared emotional experience.

The Context of Love: Relationship Needs

In the context of relationships, our needs are predictable because they are the same needs we had when we were just born into the world – a need to feel safe, a need to feel secure, a need to feel seen, and a need to feel soothed. These are the four S’s of Attachment Psychology. Now as an infant and young child, if these needs are met by our caregivers, a secure attachment is formed. Having a secure attachment predicts an inherent and stable sense of self-worth, psychological health, optimal brain development, and other broad measures of life success and fulfillment. So it’s pretty important.

Here’s what these four S’s look like for a child:

Safe – a child feels that they will be protected from danger or harm. It’s not that a kid feels that the world is safe, it’s that when they recognize potential harm, they have a belief that their caregivers will protect them from it. It’s also not being pushed to do something that’s overwhelming.

Secure – a child feels that they belong. There is a consistency of presence, of connection, of stability. This is reinforced by knowing that they are part of a larger community, such as their family, cultural or religious affiliations, or their group of friends.

Seen – a child feels that they are known, that their needs are understood. This is accomplished through the experience of receiving empathy. In-tuned caregivers can “read” a nonverbal child and decode the difference between an “I’m hungry” cry, from an “I need my diaper changed” cry, to an “I need a nap” cry. It’s having your favorite food for dinner. It’s being able to skip the chores today because you’ve had a long day. It’s also not being pushed to do something that you’re not ready for.

Soothed – a child feels comforted in the presence of their caregiver. It feels good to be cuddled, to see mom and dad in the audience before a performance, or simply to just hang out.

Interestingly, these are the exact same needs we have and look for in all of our important relationships throughout our whole life. With some slight modification, the “adult” four S’s look like this:

Safe – a person feels that they will be protected from danger or irreparable harm by being in the relationship. It’s not that they believe that the world is perfect or that pain isn’t sometimes necessary. It’s that when they face the difficulties in life, they have a sense of trust that their loved ones will: 1) not be the source of further harm, and 2) will be present and reliable so that the problems don’t have to be dealt with alone.

Secure – a person feels that they belong. There is a consistency of presence, of connection, of stability. This is reinforced by knowing that they are part of a larger community, such as their family, cultural or religious affiliations, alma maters, and mutual fandom. However, as an adult, this is also reinforced by the conviction we have in the commitments we have made to each other. Your spouse. Your best friend. The Godparents to your kids. In some ways, this sense of security is more meaningful than family ties specifically because we recognize that these relationships are made by choice.

Seen – a person feels that they are known, that their needs are understood. No difference here really – still built around the experience of giving and receiving empathy. In-tuned intimates can “read” a verbally-cryptic adult and decode the difference between an “I just want to be left alone” that really means “I don’t want to feel judged but I need you to make me talk about my feelings” from a “I just want to be left alone” that really means “please help me to have a few hours to myself so I can recharge.” When this experience is reciprocated, this is where true intimacy is developed – when you truly see each other as the imperfect, work-in-progress people you actually are and fully accept one another regardless.

Soothed – a person feels comforted in the presence of their caregiver. It feels good to be cuddled, to have people around to celebrate your chronologically significant birthday or anniversary, or again, to just hang out.

Key to our adult relationships is that we are both the recipient of feeling safe, secure, seen and soothed as well as the ones that have the ability to make the other feel the same –  mutual responsiveness. Then along with an intention to be present, and an intention to spend more time together, you will inevitably find yourself feeling the wonderfully pleasant emotion of love. See, we can choose to love.

The Purpose of Love: Emotions and Motivation

Now just having the ingredients somewhere in the kitchen doesn’t mean you have a cake. There is a specific way in which the ingredients are measured, integrated, and prepared that create the final product. And when it all comes together, it is a unique creation that is more than just a combination of its parts. For example, there is something very special about feeling safe even while being vulnerable, trusting yourself to being known intimately with all of your imperfections, accepting that someone would still choose to be in a committed lifelong relationship with you, which of course feels uniquely fulfilling and validating. Even better to simultaneously be the one that makes your loved one feel the same way in return. See, the cake tastes better than the batter.

Also just like a recipe, if you are missing crucial ingredients the end result might be pretty disappointing or might not even work at all. For instance, long distance relationships are more challenging because it is harder to feel each others’ presence. You may have had a great time reconnecting with your college roommate recently as they visited from another state, but if you only see each other every few years, the everyday sense of closeness is diminished because you don’t spend the time together like you used to. You might hesitate to call him in a time of need. Also, just giving without the opportunity for reciprocation is more akin to a caregiver’s role, which inevitably leads to burnout. It is in the receiving of love back that provides the sustainable energy to care for another over time. Also, being the recipient of someone’s affection without giving it back can lead to either selfish indulgence (which reinforces our pleasure seeking reward circuits but is at the expense of our higher abilities) or feelings of inadequacy (which reinforces negative self-criticism).

It becomes apparent that it’s when we don’t feel loved that we experience pain. This is why some of us are reluctant to risk it, because you know “love hurts” right? There was a quote attributed to Liam Neeson that I saw making the rounds on Facebook. Whether the famous actor, who recently lost his wife, truly said these words or not they are truthful nonetheless:

“Everyone says love hurts, but that is not true. Loneliness hurts. Rejection hurts. Losing someone hurts. Envy hurts. Everyone gets these things confused with love, but in reality love is the only thing in this world that covers up all pain and makes someone feel wonderful again. Love is the only thing in this world that does not hurt.”

When needs are fulfilled, we feel good and that good feeling encourages us to repeat this experience as often as possible. When needs are not fulfilled we feel pain and that pain motivates us to try something else. If what we try instead is still painful, we try yet another strategy. If it feels good, then we’ve closed the loop because it’s likely that we’ve found what we’ve needed. That’s how our health-preserving motivational system works. So love makes us want to love and be loved more. Loneliness, rejection, grief, and envy are the results of not feeling loved – and makes us want to love and be loved more. Either way, our emotions direct us towards our needs, and meaningful relationships are definitely core needs. So our hurt is not from love, it’s from not getting it. Even if we consciously choose to avoid it, our pain compels us to seek it out regardless.

How Love Changes Us All

I’ve always maintained that a better way to grow is to set ambitious, fulfilling goals. In doing so, you have a destination that provides the motivation to persist towards it, and as you work through and solve the inevitable challenges on your journey, having an understanding of your optimal outcome also provides the insight as to why things are going wrong when they are, and what you can do to course correct your way back to center. When you are on the right path, you’ll know it because healthiness and positive emotion are hard-wired together in our brains.

There could be no more ambitious or fulfilling goal than to learn this truth – we are all worthy of love. We shouldn’t have to earn it. We don’t need to be special. We don’t have to be perfect. We are worthy just because we exist. I don’t find it surprising that when we are the most helpless, that when we have the least to give, when we are totally dependent on others for our survival – if during this phase of our life we come to understand that someone in the world loves us, then we are set up for the rest of our lives to be successful and healthy. Now I could be talking about when we were little helpless babies, for which this is very true. But perhaps in a more promising fashion, this is also true for any point in life when we’ve hit our personal rock bottom with nothing left to give, and someone showed up for us. They were present. They gave us their time. They responded to our needs. Not because we earned it, but because someone believed that we deserved it. This is the experience of truly understanding for ourselves that we are worthy of love.

When you receive this from someone, it is likely that you will have a naturally-born conviction to respond positively. Positive Psychology and Emotions research show that of all the influential positive emotions connected to our wellbeing, the ones that matter the most are the ones that contribute to the wellbeing of others: “Love” – feeling that you and I matter to each other, and “meaningfulness” – the feeling attached to doing things that matter to others. This is the experience of us showing others that they are worthy of love. 

Knowing how this is all meant to work optimally, sadly I also find it equally unsurprising that a lack of affection and warmth leads to an underperforming and ungratifying life (as referenced previously in the Harvard Grant Study). Also, the intended outcomes of “tough love” look nothing like the expected outcomes of real love. Instead they look like the outcomes of neglect, rejection, judgment, isolation, and shame.

Final Thoughts – What We Know, What We Can Do

It is true that in many ways love can still be mysterious, but that’s not to say we can’t know enough about it to be good at giving and receiving it. Here’s what we know: we are all inherently worthy of love, we need love to survive, we need love to flourish. Here’s what we can do to be better at it: we can choose to be more loving – be more present, make time in our lives for relationships, practice empathy, learn the needs of those we care about and grow in our ability to meet them. We can practice self-compassion to know that we are worthy to receive love from others as well. In safe relationships we can learn how to better express our needs to make it easier for others to meet them – and when we do express our needs, we can choose to be vulnerable enough to let them help us.

Now it’s most often in the context of a struggling relationship that I’ll hear someone say, “people don’t change.” They are usually referring to the “other” person but also likely referring to beliefs about themselves. However, what’s actually true is that it is in the context of relationships that people are most likely to change for the better, and that includes all parties involved. I know I personally benefitted from a loving and warm childhood for which I am very grateful. I am also certain that my personal growth and maturity was and is still completely tied to my relationship with my wife. Becoming a parent absolutely has reshaped my goals, priorities, and perspectives in life. One simple goal is for my children to “feel” safe, secure, seen, and soothed. In addition to having a career that has given me fulfillment, meaning, and purpose, being a therapist motivates me to keep learning and improving myself so that I can better help others.

Now the interesting thing is that I know that I’ve been shaped by all these relationships just as much through the unpleasant experiences as the “feel good” moments. The constant was not that I always felt good, because I haven’t. I have also felt lonely, inadequate, rejected, misunderstood, unsafe, jealous, and angry. The constant is that I’ve always needed to experience positive relationships because I’m human, and the more that I am aware of it, I’ve been more deliberately able to direct my intentions and goals towards these needs. Both pain and love have been the guides. It is through this “inherently and exquisitely pleasant” emotion and the other feelings built around it, validated both by research and the intuition of every culturally impactful artist/creator/thinker in history – paired with our universal human need for deep connection, that serves as the catalyst for positive growth for ourselves and for those that we are connected to. The end result is more meaningfulness, more fulfillment, more contentment. Choose to be more loving. The Beatles, Science, and maybe Liam Neeson all think that you should too.

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu


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