Love is a mix of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs associated with strong feelings of affection, protectiveness, warmth, and respect for another person. For example, a person might say he or she loves his or her dog, loves freedom, or loves God. According to the triangular theory of love developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, the three components of love are intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness, connectedness, and bondedness.
Love is one of the most important, yet most misunderstood emotions we experience. Human brains are naturally wired for connection with others, and we experience loneliness and rejection as painful threats to survival. Below are some science-based facts to help you understand what love really is and isn’t:
1. Love is different than passion or lust.
Physical attraction is an important part of love for most of us, but emotional love is different than lust. This is why one-night stands and alcohol -fueled hookups don’t tend to lead to long-term relationships. Studies that scan brains in real time show that we manifest lust in the motivation/reward areas of the brains, while love lights up the regions connected to caring and empathy.
2. Love is both a momentary feeling and a long-term state of mind.
There’s something to the cliché of two hearts beating together as one: New research shows that we do experience love in the moment as a state of communion. In this moment of deep connection, people in love mirror each other’s facial expressions, gestures, and even physiological rhythms. But love can also be a lasting mental and emotional state in which we care deeply for each other’s wellbeing, feel moved by each other’s pain, and are motivated to help relieve each other’s suffering.
3. Building lasting relationships takes work.
A meta-analysis of the best long-term studies of loving relationships highlight some behavior patterns that couples with lasting love share: Partners think of each other positively when they are not together; they support each other’s personal growth and development; and they undertake shared experiences in which they can learn and expand themselves.
4. We can increase our capacity to love.
Research on mindfulness and self-compassion show that practicing these strategies regularly can develop our brains to be more positive and empathetic in a matter of months. Monks who regularly practice compassion motivation have a different rhythm of brain alpha waves than beginning meditation adherents, or the average non-meditating person. Mindfulness and compassion meditations increase activity in brain centers connected with empathy and positive emotions, decrease activation of our fear centers, and make our brains more interconnected—a trait associated with the secure attachment pattern.
5. If we focus on love, we can enhance it.
When we deliberately focus our attention on our feelings and actions toward a loved one, we begin a positive reciprocal spiral of mutual appreciation and happiness Let’s face it: We all want to be thought about, cared for, and appreciated. Research also shows that expressing gratitude in words or actions actually creates positive emotions in the giver as well as the receiver.
6. It is not a fixed quantity.
Loving one person, even a lot, does not mean you have less to give to others. In fact, the opposite is true: Love is a capacity you can build within yourself through mental concentration, emotional engagement, and caring actions. When we focus on and savor our loving feelings for one person, the internal feelings of satisfaction and connection we experience can motivate us to be more loving in general.