What is Love? Definition, Signs & Types
What is love? In this article, you will learn what social scientists know about love, how it contributes to your wellbeing, and how to cultivate more love in your life.
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However, psychologists have determined one characteristic shared by all the behaviors and experiences that we think involve love: “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). It provides a very useful starting point. 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, to be well (Rempel & Burris, 2005). You can watch a famous and familiar face break down this definition of love in this brief and illuminating video:
Video: What is Love?
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. I recently experienced this aspect of love when my partner needed surgery and was having a hard time recovering. Picking up prescriptions, talking to doctors, and making sure my partner was fed and their dog got walked – none of these things made my life any better – in fact, they were often stressful – but they definitely helped my partner.
Acts of self-care are motivated by love, too. When you make yourself a healthy meal, call a friend because you want their support, or take the time to read an article you think might help you (wink wink), you’re practicing self-love.
Opposite of Love
You might be saying to yourself, “isn’t hate the opposite of love?” I wondered about this, too. It turns out, though, that “the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.” This phrase, most often attributed to Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, emphasizes a central aspect of love: namely, that it involves a powerful feeling. Hatred also involves a powerful – but in this case, negative – feeling. Therefore, it can’t be the opposite of love.
Since love involves being invested in somebody else and wanting them to be well, the opposite of love is the absence of investment and wanting the other person to be well – indifference, in other words (Abbasi & Alghamdi, 2017). The experience of “falling out of love” provides an effective example of this. When a close relationship fades, one or both people in the relationship gradually come to care less about whether the other person is doing well and start putting less effort into promoting the other person’s wellbeing (Barry et al., 2008).
Perhaps you have experienced this yourself. You might remember a moment when you looked at someone you were once close to and you felt no drive to be near them or invest in them. This process, though often painful or saddening, is part of the natural cycle of relationships coming and going in our lives.
What Is Love in Psychology?
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 (more on this in just a bit) 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.
In other words, we know that love isn’t just a thought, feeling, or action, but it can be present in a thought, feeling, or action (Levine, 2005). Let’s talk a little more about how love isn’t exactly an emotion.
Love as an Emotion
Psychologists have argued a lot about whether love is an emotion (Sabini & Silver, 2005). Paul Ekman, perhaps the most famous researcher of emotions, has said that each basic emotion should come with its own unique facial expression or show up in the body in a unique way – for example, through approximately the same activity in the same parts of the brain, every time (Ekman, 1992).
Can you see how this might cause problems for love being considered an emotion? When you see your grandmother, you may cry tears of love, but seeing your romantic partner come home makes you smile with love instead. Instead of thinking of love as an emotion, think of love as a combination of a feeling and a thought: love is present when you (1) have a feeling and (2) label that feeling as being related to love (Schachter & Singer, 1962).
When we look at love this way, we also get around another issue with the idea of love as an emotion, which is that emotions change all the time. Knowing that, how could somebody who has been lovingly married for fifty years feel the “emotion of love” that whole time? They didn’t! They just kept having feelings that they decided were driven by love (Gonzaga et al., 2006; Scherer, 2005).
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:
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 – including some of my own clients – report finding the idea of love languages very useful for learning how to better support and show love to each other.
Benefits of Love
What are the benefits of love? 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).
Personally, I find this to be a very powerful and encouraging message. The benefits of love are available to you anytime you nurture a relationship with somebody or something you really care about.
Types of Love
Many people have offered their own take on what the different kinds of love are – so many that it takes a while to sift through them all and find one you like! Here is a short and sweet list that covers most every instance (Berscheid, 2010):
Signs of Love
Signs of love differ by the type of love – however, there are some telltale signs. Feeling drawn to being around the other person, thinking about or planning time and activities together, thinking of yourselves as a unit (friends, a couple, a family) instead of as individuals, and being ready to make sacrifices for the other person are all common experiences when feeling love for somebody else (Pennebaker et al., 2003; Yamaguchi et al., 2015).
How Does Love Feel?
Remember how one way to understand love is to think of it as a way you interpret a feeling you’re having? That means that love can feel lots of ways. In romantic love, chemicals that are designed to help you bond to your partner can flood your system, making you feel euphoric and powerfully drawn to your partner. Companionate love, by contrast, may be less intense, but still features affectionate and tender feelings. Compassionate love, as its name suggests, is characterized by compassion – feeling for the other person, or compelled to help them.
Those were examples of generally positive emotions, but negative emotions can be driven by love, too. Maybe you’ve felt jealous seeing your partner talk to their ex, grief at the passing of a beloved grandparent, or nostalgia thinking about memorable adventures with your long-lost college friends. Love underlies these feelings as well.
Tips for Cultivating 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).
How to Practice Love
The idea of love as a “practice” is best demonstrated by the people whose lifelong commitment to loving others has truly changed the world (Chi, 2020). People who practice love in all aspects of their lives, or who follow their love to its most profound limits, have promoted well-being for themselves and many others on a global scale. Think of the selfless sacrifice and love for others exhibited by Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Maya Angelou, or Oprah Winfrey. What these individuals offer us is an example of how to practice love professionally and personally.
At the same time, neither you nor I have to practice love on that scale to make a meaningful difference. There is probably somebody in your own social circles or extended family who is known for being deeply loving, caring, and giving. Think about how that person chooses to live their life. How might you live and love more like they do?
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Final Thoughts on Love
If this article has made love sound simple or straightforward, I apologize. There is probably nothing more complex – nor rewarding – in our experience as humans than loving someone else.
At the same time, if you’ve ever felt that love was an out-of-control force in your life, I hope what I’ve shared here makes you reconsider. Love is a way we choose to see our actions and feelings. In many ways, love itself is a choice, an attitude or an approach for moving through the world. Knowing what you know now, I hope you can find more the love you are looking to give and receive.