The other day, I had one of those moments which must be unique to this particular historical moment: I put an opinion on the internet and got some incredibly mean comments in response. I was upset. I left the house with my dog, who is exceptionally cute, and a stranger, noticing this, smiled at him and then at me. I smiled back. I felt a little better.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson is a researcher who would have named my experience with the stranger a micromoment of positivity resonance—a shared positive emotion. She calls this the body’s definition of love. Love isn’t, she contends, the kind of exclusive lifelong bonds we try to create with our romantic partners. It’s something you can stumble across many different times in a day. Through her lab research, Fredrickson found that our bodies and brains respond positively to connection with other human beings, no matter how well we know the other person. Laughing at the same joke, hugging a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or mutually acknowledging the cuteness of someone’s dog are examples of the kind of love our bodies respond to and, Fredrickson argues, need to survive. In her book Love 2.0, she writes, “Just as your body was designed to extract oxygen from the Earth’s atmosphere, and nutrients from the foods you ingest, your body was designed to love.”
Right now, the US is especially divided, and there is a lot of anger and frustration in the air. As far as I can tell, neither side is particularly able to see the point of view of the other, and both sides feel betrayed and silenced in one way or another. I don’t know the solution to this, but I do know that our bodies get depleted when we are constantly steeped in anger and frustration. It’s exhausting, and it can feel impossible to stay strong enough to fight for what we believe to be right when it feels like all we are experiencing is hate.
Feeling this way—not to mention our constant exposure to a fear-focused 24 hour news cycle—keeps us in the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” mode. In order to heal and digest, we need to step into the parasympathetic nervous system, which Fredrickson calls the “calm and connect” response. Too much stress blocks our ability to love. Love, however, is the cure to stress.
The good news is that love, according to Fredrickson’s definition at least, really isn’t that hard to find. We don’t need a romantic partner to feel it. And we can increase our exposure to it simply by being willing to connect with others over positive moments and really noticing when that connection happens.
This is a difficult time for many of us, and it’s important to show up to that and deal with it and talk about it and try to figure out how to share the planet with our global community. But it is absolutely vital that we take time out to be with people we connect to, whether that’s through affection, laughter, or just spending time enjoying each other’s company. We can still be engaging with all the difficult realities of today’s world, but we can (and, perhaps, must) stay connected to each other. Remember, too, that if this whole situation is bothering us, it’s probably because we care—about our families, our loved ones, the environment, our neighbors, or the rights and freedoms of the person with whom we ride the bus. In difficult times, then, let’s remember love, seek it out, and let it help us keep fighting for what matters.