by Louis Cinquino
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” “—Ursula K. Le Guin
Those were the words on the last slide of the last presentation of the 2017 Embodied Positive Psychology Summit at Kripalu. I didn’t know who Le Guin was and, to be honest, by this point in the week, I figured I’d learned enough about love that I didn’t need to write down what seemed like a trite quote.
I knew relationships are hard work. Love can’t be taken for granted. I learned that stuff through my own, er, research. Which is to say, I found out the hard way through relationships that had withered. The issue for me isn’t knowing that love takes some work, it’s knowing what that work is—and how to approach it in a way that doesn’t seem like, well, work.
I did have relationships that had worked well—effortlessly, actually. Relationships that didn’t seem like work at all—until they soured. And then, all the work and all the king’s horses couldn’t put them back together again.
So what kind of work was Le Guin talking about? What is this remaking and reconstituting the “bread of our love”? This artisan loaf of passion that can give me the sustenance of enduring love?
I turn to the beginning of my notes on the Summit and start over. The recipe for this bread of love has to be in my notes somewhere. I dig around for the secret ingredients, gleaned from the keynotes that seemed to hold the most potential for me.
Here’s my first attempt at putting them together into a recipe that I would like to cook up in my own relationships. Please feel free to try this at home and let me know how it tastes for you.
1 growth heartset
Into this, mix generous amounts of intentional acts that:
Express our strengths
Spot strengths in others
Sprinkle with micro-moments of positivity resonance.
Bake for as long as you can.
The growth heartset is the ever-expanding bowl into which we knead all our other ingredients for love.
With a nod to the pioneering work of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, Megan McDonough called us to move toward the attitude that we can increase our capacity to love. As we act in awareness of this capacity to expand, we can see love as a force that can keep pace with our lives. There are complexities of life that can otherwise deaden the love that we notice ourselves feeling—and, if we don’t work to expand our love, we can shrink toward those limits.
The two main ingredients that we mix into this growth heartset are intentional actions that complement each other perfectly: Expressing our strengths while spotting strengths in others.
Neil Mayerson, chairman/founder of the VIA Institute on Character, illuminated the fallacy of what he calls “scorecard love”—when we offer only as much love as we feel is being returned to us. That kind of relationship can’t break free and expand. It’s made small and petty through calculation and reciprocity. This limits how and when we can express our love—and our selves. Neal pointed out that research into the role of character strengths is clear: When we express our strengths, we witness an increase in health, positive relationships, and flourishing.
So where Megan assures us of our ability to grow, Neil gives us a way to do that: by expressing our strengths.
The complement to this comes from the work of Todd Kashdan, director of the Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University, who unveiled his first presentation on a multi-year research project into the role that characters strengths play in love relationships. His findings show that a central driver of relationship satisfaction is expressive appreciation for our partner’s strengths. How often and well you express this heartfelt appreciation actually shapes our partner toward their strengths—and fosters togetherness. Likewise, the more you choose to perceive and focus on the costs of your partner’s strengths (which I think is a nice way of saying “reminding them about all the crap that bugs you”), the more the relationship erodes and lessens the sense of belonging.
So while Neal is calling us to express our strengths, Todd is showing us the importance of recognizing the strengths of our partners, even in situations that may be otherwise frustrating to us.
To know and be known. This should sound familiar to CiPPsters and anyone who’s studied with Tal Ben-Shahar, as it is one of the fundamental tenets of his approach to his teaching and his life.
The yeast for this recipe comes from Barbara Fredrickson, principal investigator for the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her presentation on micro-moments of positivity resonance (which contained the slide with Le Guin’s quote) summarized work that shows how love truly is the supreme positive emotion—the one that has the most influence in broadening and building waves of positivity that shape us, in tiny bursts of positive emotions. With a foundation of safety and connection, these micro-moments appear among couples in the form of shared (although not necessarily mirrored) positive emotions, bio-behavioral synchronicity (that ripples back and forth between partners), and mutual care and concern. That broadened foundation allows us to build embodied rapport (“We clicked!”), social bonds, and commitment.
So that may be the recipe that I, and perhaps you, have been looking for—express our strengths, see and appreciate the strengths in our partners, tune in to the micro-moments of positivity that resonate between us.
When we can be aware of these ingredients for love, we are ready to fold this dough into the bread of love that can expand to sustain us throughout our lives. Which leaves just the baking—whether it be the burning fires of romantic love or the gentle warmth of the other kinds of love that give our lives meaning.
So turn up the heat. And bon appétit!
Louis Cinquino, a graduate of CiPP4, is a writer, editor, runner, Dad, channeler of bad poetry, itinerant pick-up basketball player, and direct-response advertising writer whose work has been sent unsolicited to tens of millions of mailboxes worldwide. His personal observations, discoveries, and training plan as he prepared for the Fifth Avenue mile race were featured in “The Mulligan Mile,” (Runners World, September 2013). The article forms the basis of his memoir-in-the-works, Running Back The Clock. You can read more about Louis’ adventures on his blog, TakingMulligans.com, where he keeps asking the same question: What if we ran like there was no tomorrow and lived today like there was no yesterday?