Americans are lonelier and lonelier because we increasingly subscribe to the “Love Myth”, which basically states that eternal true love is the gold standard to which we should all strive. (For proof, look up “True Love” at urbandictionary.com)
But there’s hope!
A beautiful new article in The Atlantic Magazine talks about one scientist’s work to deconstruct that Love Myth. Dr. Barbara Frederickson has found that real, meaningful “love” is made up of biochemical connections and reactions that can form with friends, relatives, or even strangers we make eye contact with for a second on the street.
Yeah, ok. As a chick flick fan and Bridgett Jones diehard, I want to believe in my white knight. Why should I care about this new research? Because my white knight is an illusion. Real relationships with real people will make me far happier than holding out, alone, waiting for that white knight.
“Lonely people who are looking for love are making a mistake if they are sitting around and waiting for love in the form of the “love myth” to take hold of them. If they instead sought out love in little moments of connection that we all experience many times a day, perhaps their loneliness would begin to subside.”
Frederickson and other pioneering scientists are finding that we can measure love. They look at brain waves to see if two subject’s brain waves are synching up as they emotionally connect. They measure the levels of oxytocin coursing through our system fostering attachment. Perhaps most interesting of all, they look at how our brain and heart are literally connected by a (vagus) nerve that can be trained to make us feel more loving and loved.
What? I can train my own body to put out the love vibes?!
Here comes the cool sexy science (full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/theres-no-such-thing-as-everlasting-love-according-to-science/267199/)
The final player is the vagus nerve, which connects your brain to your heart and subtly but sophisticatedly allows you to meaningfully experience love. As Fredrickson explains in her book, “Your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person. It even adjusts the miniscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track her voice against any background noise.”
The vagus nerve’s potential for love can actually be measured by examining a person’s heart rate in association with his breathing rate, what’s called “vagal tone.” Having a high vagal tone is good: People who have a high “vagal tone” can regulate their biological processes like their glucose levels better; they have more control over their emotions, behavior, and attention; they are socially adept and can kindle more positive connections with others; and, most importantly, they are more loving. In research from her lab, Fredrickson found that people with high vagal tone report more experiences of love in their days than those with a lower vagal tone.
Historically, vagal tone was considered stable from person to person. You either had a high one or you didn’t; you either had a high potential for love or you didn’t. Fredrickson’s recent research has debunked that notion.
In a 2010 study from her lab, Fredrickson randomly assigned half of her participants to a “love” condition and half to a control condition. In the love condition, participants devoted about one hour of their weeks for several months to the ancient Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation. In loving-kindness meditation, you sit in silence for a period of time and cultivate feelings of tenderness, warmth, and compassion for another person by repeating a series of phrases to yourself wishing them love, peace, strength, and general well-being. Ultimately, the practice helps people step outside of themselves and become more aware of other people and their needs, desires, and struggles—something that can be difficult to do in our hyper individualistic culture.
Fredrickson measured the participants’ vagal tone before and after the intervention. The results were so powerful that she was invited to present them before the Dalai Lama himself in 2010. Fredrickson and her team found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, people could significantly increase their vagal tone by self-generating love through loving-kindness meditation. Since vagal tone mediates social connections and bonds, people whose vagal tones increased were suddenly capable of experiencing more micro-moments of love in their days. Beyond that, their growing capacity to love more will translate into health benefits given that high vagal tone is associated with lowered risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Fredrickson likes to call love a nutrient. If you are getting enough of the nutrient, then the health benefits of love can dramatically alter your biochemistry in ways that perpetuate more micro-moments of love in your life, and which ultimately contribute to your health, well-being, and longevity.
Sign me up for that meditation love chanting whoo-saa stuff, pronto. This girl has a vagus nerve to train!