Love is a complex emotion with a variety of different meanings. For some, it’s a feeling of attraction between a romantic partner or life-long friend. For others, it’s a more platonic type of love felt for family or pets. For still others, it’s a more intense form of affection, often associated with closeness and attachment.
While the feelings of love can vary greatly, there are some common effects that have been observed in studies of love and in real-life relationships. For example, we’ve all probably experienced that giddy feeling of love at some point, which is actually caused by a jumble of chemicals in the brain including dopamine (pleasure), adrenaline (fight or flight), and oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”). When you think about or see the person you’re in love with, these chemicals release, giving you that euphoric rush of excitement.
Other researchers have looked at how love affects the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. They have found that when a person is talking about someone they love, areas of the brain such as the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex light up on an MRI scan. This is due to increased blood flow to these areas, as the brain is registering that there’s something worth paying attention to.
However, if we look closer at the underlying biology of these phenomena, it seems that they may not be enough to fully account for what makes love unique. Biological models of love tend to focus on two main factors: sexual attraction and the desire to care for another person like a parent. Complementary, companionate loves are also seen as part of the mix, but these are more akin to feelings of affection and closeness that are not associated with physiological arousal.
In contrast, philosophical analyses of love usually focus on what is regarded as its deeper significance. Philosophers from ancient times have distinguished three notions of love: eros, agape and philia. They differ in how they are characterized and viewed, and each is said to have its own distinctive properties that give it depth. The question is how these idiosyncratic, subjective qualities are to be understood and justified.
The key to being happy is determining what you value in a relationship, and proactively making decisions that align with those values. For example, if you value honesty, don’t lie or manipulate. You’ll find that you are much more satisfied in the long run. And while it might take time to establish your values, in the end they will serve you well.