I recently recorded a Valentine’s Day video for an online news organization. The theme: “Valentine’s Day Sucks.”
My friend Jen (author of a great book called Save the Date) and I rolled our eyes at those corny Mylar balloons and chalky Valentine’s hearts, making up goofy inscriptions like “Let’s Settle For Each Other” and “You’ll Do.”
We had a lot of fun, but we were also aware of why we’d be asked to mock that commercial sentimentality.
When you’re a kid, Valentine’s Day is delightful. The teacher cuts the math lesson short and everyone pushes the desks together to prepare for a feast of pink cupcakes dotted with Red Hots. You stuff shoeboxes decorated with hearts and doilies with Batman and Strawberry Shortcake cards.
But once adolescence hits, Valentine’s Day becomes something else entirely—a sharp reminder that some people have romantic partners and others don’t. Did someone in your high school send you a carnation? If so, was it passionate red, mixed-message pink or friend-zone white?
After you enter the work world, February 14 is the day that some desks display large bouquets of roses, while others have the same file folders and coffee mugs. At lunch, you’re either the person standing in a long line to purchase overpriced flowers and chocolate, or you’re the passerby who has no need to.
Of course, we’re aware of our relationship status the other 364 days of the year, but Valentine’s Day is when the “status” part is underscored.
But this emphasis on status shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what love is, according to research by University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson.
“There is a lot of focus on love being exclusive and finding that soulmate. It’s like this big achievement of life,” Fredrickson said in an online seminar.
But this is not an accurate view of what love really is. “At its core, love is an emotion,” she says. Specifically, it’s the positive feeling that comes from mutual exchanges, when you invest in someone else for their sake.
We offer love—via compliments, shoulder rubs, sympathetic ears, breakfasts in bed—to our nearest and dearest—spouses, friends, siblings, parents. But these interactions aren’t confined to our inner circles. Fredrickson says that anytime you have warm exchange with another person—a joke with a neighbor, a smile with a cashier—you’re experiencing love. These small moments of connection are physiologically identical to love in its more celebrated forms—romantic, parental, etc.
Love, she explains, is not a permanent state, but rather something that arises and dissipates. “Right now I say I love my husband,” Fredrickson told her colleagues, “but right now I’m in the midst of talking to you guys about love, so I’m not actively showing investment in him at this moment.”
In other words, love isn’t something that you “find” or “have”; it’s an active state, a verb.
Of course, close relationships are still very important. But it’s helpful to know love isn’t as exclusive as it sometimes seems. It’s not a nightclub where only the most beautiful or fabulous can get past the velvet ropes. It’s something that we all have within us, that we’re all capable of extending anytime, to anyone.
Fredrickson’s research also finds that there are ways to flex your love muscles and bring more of those connection moments into your life. I’ll discuss that in the next post.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.