Culture At Large

What science gets right - and wrong - about love

Nick Olson

In an Atlantic piece provocatively titled “There’s No Such Thing as Everlasting Love (According to Science),” researcher Barbara Fredrickson is cited as suggesting that love is neither a “long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage” nor “the yearning and passion that characterizes young love.”

Instead, it is what Fredrickson calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” The author of the piece, Emily Esfahani Smith, summarizes Fredrickson this way: “Love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person - any other person - whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day.”

Smith’s article provides a much-needed reminder that “love” is a multifaceted reality in which a multitude of relationships take their most authentic shape. Often, it seems tempting for Christians to either succumb to the culture’s Valentine credo of uncontrollable passion or to set marriage on a pedestal that makes singles feel like failures. But love’s expressions are manifold. C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves should be required reading on Feb. 14, for his four-fold assessment of “God is love” - exploring affection, friendship, romance and charity - lays the groundwork for considering the beautiful diversity of love’s nature.

Christianity has the essential resources to account not only for the kind of love which can sustain a marriage, but also for love’s more daily, casual gestures between friends, neighbors, relatives and even strangers. In other words, Christianity can account for these “little moments of connection” that Fredrickson hopes will encourage the lonely in a Valentine’s Day culture. The callings to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit are exhortations which inspire prosaic gestures - a handshake, a smile, a compliment, a knowing glance, an unexpected phone call, a cooked meal, a sacrificial helping hand - that fill our hearts with exceeding gladness (or “positivity resonance”).

C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves should be required reading on Feb. 14, for his four-fold assessment of “God is love” lays the groundwork for considering the beautiful diversity of love’s nature.

Yet the fundamentally scientific evaluation of these emotions means a narrow scope envisioned from a questionable presupposition: “love” can be whittled down to the observable moment in which we feel good or when we feel love’s resonance. Ironically, it’s this sort of narrow definition of love which often leads to - and embellishes - our loneliness. When love’s definition derives from a singular focus on felt moments of happiness, we begin to selfishly seek them out like a high, and this sort of self-absorption perpetuates loneliness.

Instead, love is better found in the purposeful gestures that occasion those emotions. We can enjoy the moments of feeling loved for they are part of love’s equation, but, foremost, these feelings ought to inspire a love qualified by gratitude, and then the desire for reciprocation. If love is not only facilitated and occasioned but embodied by persons - an all-encompassing reality to inhabit - then its expressions only make sense if there is a baseline, loving purpose. This purpose finds itself in the Person who is love - not the abstract idea of love. This is the hope found in embracing Christ - love incarnate - who is eternally loving and loved as the second Person in the Trinitarian landscape.

By this Light, love has a breathtaking range and fullness for all of the daily relationships in which we find occasion for gladness. But perhaps more importantly in our fallen context, it’s a Light by which loneliness’ darkness is illuminated. We can find reason - cultivated passion, too - to persevere in our most important interpersonal commitments, and to feel love’s embrace by initiating it, even with the unlovely. By this Light we can not only love when we don’t feel like it, but, with increasing gratitude, we might find our “positivity resonance” growing more persistent and less fleeting - something more akin to the perseverant contentment we call joy.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Home & Family, Marriage, Dating & Singleness