By Cyndi Myers
As Valentine’s Day nears, we’re relentlessly bombarded with heart-shaped everything everywhere we look. Love is definitely in the air, from shelves of heart-shaped chocolates and candies to heart-adorned shirts and sweaters and coffee mugs and jewelry. So, what better time to talk about love and the powerful impact the feelings of love have on the human mind and body, as well as how love is the strongest driving force for forging human connection.
Admittedly, my husband and I don’t celebrate the holiday. That’s not to say our love for one another isn’t great enough to shower each other with gifts, chocolates, candy hearts and fresh roses on February 14th; we just prefer to abstain from the commercial aspects of the holiday and sprinkle those sweet sentiments throughout the year. Because it’s the constantness, the day-to-day cultivation of love that helps us maintain that crucial balance of feelings so the scales don’t tip too heavily in one direction or another. It’s the cultivation of love that also fuels kindness, patience and understanding, enhancing human connections and closing the divides. So, to honor that balance and encourage its cultivation, I will focus on how those feelings of love can alter not only our physiology, but our mindset - and the mindset of others around us - as well.
I Wanna Know What Love Is
Take a moment to remember your first true love. Close your eyes and connect to the memories in a physical way. How did your body feel? Was your heart thumping? Were your palms sweaty? Were you tongue-tied? Now, how did those feelings in your body express themselves in your thoughts? I’m going to bet that the butterflies in your stomach fostered happiness, giddiness and even increased motivation in your mind. Maybe it’s vice versa, but the connection between the two is the focus here. And, while I would argue the mind and body are always one, for one reason or another, not everyone is able to make that connection. Regardless, those thoughts and feelings of love produce an actual, unmistakable chemical release in our bodies that leave us wanting more.
Interestingly, for centuries people believed that emotions - especially love - stemmed from the heart. In actuality, however, it’s all about the brain. According to scientists at Rutgers University, love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction and attachment. Each category releases its own set of hormones stemming from the brain. Without diving too deeply into the science, researchers have found that the feelings of lust stimulate the production of estrogen and testosterone (for reproduction); feelings of attraction produce dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin; and attachment, or bonding, is driven by oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”) and vasopressin. The physiology of love is undeniable. But what about its effect on our mindset? And, how can our cultivation of love positively impact others around us?
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
According to a team of researchers, led by two Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS) researchers, people who experienced higher "felt love" (brief experiences of love and connection in everyday life) also reported significantly higher levels of psychological well-being, which includes feelings of purpose and optimism, compared to those who had lower felt love scores.* In fact, research has shown again and again that people who report feeling more love and having more close relationships are happier and healthier than people with less love in their lives (e.g., Chopik, 2017; Kahana et al., 2021). I fully believe that when we feel love, we’re more apt to be motivated to share those feelings with others around us. When other people experience our kindness, it makes them happier. And in turn, when people around us are happier as a result of our kindness, that tends to make us feel happy as well. A nice little loop of goodness. Spreading those giddy feelings of happiness and love not only leaves ourselves and everyone we share with feeling those same giddy feelings, but it leads to a ripple of others sharing with their circles, too, connecting more and more people as the ripple expands.
Think about when you’re watching a TV show and something makes you laugh. For me, the first thing I do is turn to whomever I’m watching the show with to share that moment, to share those laughs and good feelings. Why? Because shared laughter is much more than just laughter; shared laughter indicates that you both have similar views and are connected by those views, thereby strengthening the relationship. It fosters camaraderie and togetherness, which in turn creates a sense of belonging and overall satisfaction. I posit that feelings of love have the same effect, the same impact on relationships.
So how do we cultivate love and kindness, even for those who think and behave in ways that are not aligned with our beliefs? The answer is, simply put, with practice. Here are some suggestions…
3 Tips on Cultivating Love & Kindness:
The most important step to cultivating love and kindness toward others is to start by sending loving kindness to yourself. We’re usually hardest on ourselves, nitpicking every perceived flaw or failure. Go easy on yourself and show yourself some love. It can be as simple as looking at yourself in the mirror and saying “I love you” with conviction, as if you’re saying it to your partner or your child. Keep repeating “I love you” until you feel a shift in your emotions or contentment settling in. You’ll be surprised by how it truly changes how you feel!
Close your eyes and ride the wave of good feelings you’ve just connected to, calling up someone you love dearly. Feel your love and acceptance for that person. Once you feel it deeply, move on to your extended family. Then to your close friends. Then all your friends. Then acquaintances. Then your neighborhood, your town, your state, country, and eventually, the entire world. Envision people all throughout the world, every one of them in need of love and kindness. Feel it deeply. Your thoughts are energy, and the energy you’re sending to others just by thinking loving thoughts about them can undoubtedly create shifts in others even if they’re across the world! Here are a few ideas of “energetic messages” you can send to someone: ~ May you be well. ~ May you be at ease. ~ May you be kind to yourself and others.
Create a mantra to carry around with you as a reminder. One of my favorites is “feeling beings … feeling beings.” If I carry that phrase around in my mind, then I’m reminded to connect with people not on the basis of whether I like them or not, and not on the basis of whether I even know them. I’m reminded to connect with people on the basis that they’re simply feeling beings like me. They suffer like me, they experience happiness like me, and they more than likely prefer happiness to suffering just like me.
While some of these suggestions may sound silly, they do work. But in order to create shifts in your heart and shifts in the world, practicing all of these kind, loving thoughts and actions daily is the best way to truly create change. After all, the point of the practice is not simply to feel more loving while we’re sitting in the comfort of our own home with our eyes closed, but to become kinder in the context of our everyday lives. Just imagine if we all set our intentions and focus on all the good feels, rather than the current wave of disconnect and discourse. Would we see less conflict in the world? Would we begin to see the world and the people (and animals!) around us differently? Would we be more understanding, forgiving, loving and gentle with ourselves and others? With 100% certainty, I say ABSOLUTELY!
*Zita Oravecz, Jessica Dirsmith, Saeideh Heshmati, Joachim Vandekerckhove, Timothy R. Brick. Psychological well-being and personality traits are associated with experiencing love in everyday life. Personality and Individual Differences, 2020; 153: 109620 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.109620