The search for love is often described like a treasure hunt—it’s something you find and, if you’re careful, have forever. I have certainly been guilty of writing and thinking about love this way.
But research by University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson reveals that this very stagnant view of love is not accurate.
Love doesn’t happen when you click the “in a relationship” button; it happens whenever you offer another person warmth, kindness or care. It doesn’t matter if that person is a romantic partner, or even a friend or family member. Whenever you offer a fellow commuter a seat, thank a soldier for their service, or wave hello to a neighbor, you’re experiencing an emotion that is biologically identical to the more celebrated forms of love.
“Love is not just a relationship status. It’s a verb; it’s an action; it’s something that transpires between people. It’s one human resonating with another,” Fredrickson said in an interview with The Sun.
Fredrickson’s research found that people were able to increase the amount of this positive resonance in their lives through a simple meditation technique.
In the study, participants practiced a form of meditation called lovingkindness, which involves reciting a mantra in which you wish peace and happiness to others. For example: “May you feel safe. May you be happy. May you feel healthy. May you live with ease.”
The study found that people who practiced lovingkindness meditation for less than one hour a week had significantly increased tone in their vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the heart. This is the nerve that coordinates a person’s experience of love, supporting her ability to smile, make eye contact, and listen more attentively. If that sounds like New Age gobbledygook to you, you’re not alone.
“Sometimes people have a bristly reaction because they think it’s really saccharine or fake—it sounds like magical thinking,” Fredrickson said in an online seminar.
But the point of the exercise is not to send out vibes that will change others. “The point of it is to change you. To change your own degree of warmth and other-focus and concern with others when you’re not practicing,” says Fredrickson.
I have practiced lovingkindness and similar forms of meditation for years, and in my experience the technique has done what Fredrickson describes. When I practice it, I shift my focus outward, away from my own concerns and toward others. My attitude toward myself and the people around me—even those I don’t particularly like—is kinder and gentler.
Can a daily lovingkindness practice replace close relationships? I doubt it. But this time of year, I think it’s helpful to remember that love isn’t a golden trophy awarded to the virtuous and the desirable. It’s an action and an offering that’s available to all of us.
But don’t take my or Fredrickson’s word for it. Considering trying a short lovingkindness practice for a week (there is one on my resource page). If you do, please let me know what you think.
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.