Discover what social scientists know about love, how it contributes to your wellbeing, and how to cultivate more love in your life.
Love can be thought of as an “investment in the well-being of the other for his or her own sake” (Hegi & Bergner, 2010, p. 621). What does that mean? It means that love is wanting another person to be happy and healthy. This is the characteristic that people most consistently say is central to the idea of love (Hegi & Bergner, 2010).
Think about it: whether it’s a parent dressing their newborn baby, one sibling defending another on the playground, or the feeling you get from sending or receiving a birthday card, all instances of love involve a desire for somebody else to feel good (Rempel & Burris, 2005). Often, feeling love translates into an act of love: we do good for someone so that they can be well, even if it doesn’t help us directly.
Believe it or not, psychologists only really started studying love as a specific idea in the last 75 years. In addition to realizing that love involves feeling good when somebody else is well (Bowlby, 1978), psychologists started to describe different types of love, such as romantic love and companionate love (Berscheid & Walter, 1978).
While psychologists generally agree that there are a limited number of types of love, everyone has agreed that love manifests in many different ways – perhaps too many to count. For example, love can be why you forgive your partner for always being late, commit to finishing a creative project, dream about getting a promotion so you can afford to take your kids to Disneyland, or feel devastated when your favorite sports team loses. Notice that the only shared characteristic of these situations is that you care about something or somebody (your team, your children, your partner, your creative vision) and want it to be well.
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). Perhaps the best example of this comes from Harvard researchers who followed a group of men for over 80 years of their lives. The researchers found that warm and loving close relationships, whether with friends, family, or spouses, were among the best predictors of well-being across the entire lifespan (Waldinger & Schulz, 2016; Waldinger et al., 2007).
What Are Love Languages?
Thirty years ago, author and pastor Gary Chapman introduced the idea that there are five “love languages” – ways of showing another person that you love them (Chapman, 1992). Chapman (1992) wrote that each person has some love languages that they prefer over others and that close relationships – particularly romantic ones – will work best when we try to show love for our partners in the languages that they most prefer. Here are the five love languages:
Words of affirmation: Telling your partner what you appreciate about them, or simply expressing affection and care.
Quality time: Spending time together where you are focused on being present with the other person.
Acts of service: Doing things to make your partner’s life easier or more enjoyable.
Gifts: Receiving something that shows the other person was really thinking about your wants and needs.
Physical touch: Using physical signs of affection, which can include sexual intimacy, to express love.
Since the idea of love languages has become very popular, psychologists have done research to see whether people who follow Chapman’s ideas have stronger relationships. Only recently have psychologists started to find a connection between love languages and relationship satisfaction (e.g., Hughes & Camden, 2020). It may be that when partners have different love languages, it’s not enough to ‘speak the other person’s language’ – you have to do it effectively and genuinely (Bunt & Hazelwood, 2017). Despite this lack of clear research findings, many couples in therapy report finding the idea of love languages very useful for learning how to better support and show love to each other.
How to Cultivate Love
The simplest way to cultivate love in your life is to focus on the good you see in others, and the good you want for others. One scientifically-proven way to do this is to practice loving-kindness meditation, a Buddhist practice in which one deliberately and repeatedly thinks kind and loving thoughts toward others. Many studies have shown that practicing loving-kindness increases your positive feelings toward the people you think about and desire for them to be well – which increases your own positive emotions as well (Zeng et al., 2015).
Deliberately thinking about or writing lists of what one is grateful for is another way to cultivate love (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Finally, simply caring for and doing for others – even just in our regular, everyday activities – can make us grow and deepen in our love for them (Little & Frost, 2013).
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Zeng, X., Chiu, C. P. K., Wang, R., Oei, T. P. S., & Leung, F. Y. K. (2015). The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: a meta-analytic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1693.