Love is cure for loneliness

I see friends shaking hands/ sayin’ “how do you do?”/ They’re really sayin’/ “I love you.”

– Louis Armstrong

A global poll taken last Valentine’s Day showed that most coupled people list their romantic partner as the greatest source of happiness in their lives. According to the same survey, which was conducted in 24 countries by Ipsos Global Public Affairs, nearly half of all single people are looking for a romantic partner, saying that finding a special person to love would contribute greatly to their happiness.

Having one true love is a desire that most people can relate to. But maybe thinking of love as solely a romance or commitment you share with only one person can actually limit the happiness people can derive from love.

According to John Cacioppo and William Patrick, experts on loneliness at the University of Chicago, roughly 20 percent of individuals – about 60 million people in the U.S. alone – feel so isolated that they consider it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives. For older Americans, that number is closer to 35 percent.

I’m sure those stats only increase around this time of year.

But what if people looked at love under a different light?

In her new book, “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become,” psychologist Barbara Fredrickson does just that.

Fredrickson is the leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Through scientific evidence, she argues that love is a connection characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which a person can share with anyone.

Like all emotions, love has a biochemical component. But unlike some of the other positive emotions, like happiness, love can only exist in the physical connection between two people. Fredrickson says you may feel bonded to someone even when you’re not in her or his presence. But physically, your body is completely loveless.

There are three players in the biological love system: mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone.

Uri Hasson, a researcher at Princeton University, has done pioneering studies on what happens inside the brains of two people who connect in conversation.

They recorded a young woman telling a lively story about her high school prom. Then, researchers played the recording for the participants in the study, who were listening to it as their brains were being scanned in an MRI. The researchers then asked each participant to recreate the story to determine who was listening well, and who was not.

Those who weren’t needed time to process the story – brain patterns of these listeners mirrored those of the storyteller’s after a short time gap. But good listeners’ brain activity was almost perfectly synchronized. The mutual understanding and shared emotions in the second category of listener generated “a single act, performed by two brains,” as Fredrickson writes in her book.

Next is oxytocin, or what many called the “cuddle hormone.” This hormone, which is released during moments of physical intimate connection (i.e. making eye contact, smiling, hugging, intercourse), works by making people feel more trusting and open.

The final player is the vagus nerve, which connects your brain to your heart. As Fredrickson explains in her book, “Your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to synchronize your facial expressions with another person.” The vagus nerve’s potential for love can actually be measured by examining a person’s heart rate in association with his or her breathing rate, what’s called “vagal tone.”

Basically, if you feel these three things with anyone – a romantic partner, child, close friend, or even a total stranger – then you are, however momentarily, in love with that person. Fredrickson calls this a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.”

This radical idea of love isn’t the stuff of Rom-Coms. But maybe it’s OK to lower cultural expectations that have inflated love so much that no sane person could actually reach it.

Maybe if people sought out love in little moments of connection that we all experience many times a day, then the rates of loneliness would begin to subside.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to

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