It is a day after Valentine’s Day, a good time to ask, “what is love”?
Is it biochemical, just a roiling internal soup of our neurohormones? You can purchase potent messengers of love derived from that soup, sex pheromones, in various brands of solutions, lotions, and, shall we dare say, “potions” just a click or two away on the internet. Do they exist?
Or is it psychological, just a positive tilt in our balance scale of social experiences? An author on NPR just last week talked about her work on the definition of love, and she just rattled off an excellent one sentence definition: “Love is a collection of multiple positive moments shared with another.” Sorry, I can’t remember the name of her book. More about “multiple positive moments” leading to love later.
Even if we don’t know what love is, do we really know what it does?
Dr. Helen Reiss, Massachusetts General Hospital, lists five effects of love in her book The Empathy Effect.
1) “the honeymoon”
When you first fall in love “your head is in the clouds; you are walking on air.” Both effects are supported by a large outpouring of dopamine, the “really good feeling” hormone. Serotonin, the “mood regulating hormone”, also decreases at the same time which can explain both the ecstasy and the dramas of early love.
2) “the bonding”
As time passes the surge of dopamine subsides and there is an increasing level of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”. Your neurochemical soup starts getting back into balance, and you approach a more steady state, one more conducive to the “long haul”.
3) “singleness anxiety”
The anxiety and loneliness of being single can lead to increased levels of norepinephrine, cortisol, and epinephrine, the “stress hormones”. Love lost is stress found.
4) “togetherness medical benefits”
The diagnosis rate of advanced skin melanoma is lower in couples, and diseases with easy bruising are diagnosed sooner in people who are coupled, presumably because each person has another looking at their skin. (So saith Dr. Reiss) Also, each person in a couple may help break through the denial of the other about the need to see a doctor.
5) “Longer lives”
An increased disease protection for coupled people is not just skin deep. Multiple studies have found that married people have less substance abuse, less depression, and lower blood pressure than single peers. A 2010 review of 148 studies of longevity revealed that increased longevity was associated with any “close social relationship”, not necessarily a romantic one. Family and friends do help.
Which gets me back to that “collection of positive moments shared with another” mentioned in the beginning. What about shared positive moments on social media? Does using Facebook increase your longevity? lower your blood pressure? Does it depend on your number of “friends” or on the number of hours spent on Facebook? What about any Match.com effect on melanoma diagnosis? Will questions like this provoke a new wave of important biosocial research, or will they merely spawn a blockbuster Sci Fi novel (film?) of a woman with 83 million Facebook friends who becomes President and lives cancer-free to 150?
After all, “love conquers all”.
Well, maybe not all of the time and in all of the places. Pakistan just this year outlawed St. Valentine’s Day as a threat of “increasing Westernization”.