“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 Embodied Positive Psychology Summit I attended a few years ago at Kripalu in Lenox, MA. I didn’t know who Le Guin was and, to be honest, by that point in the week, I figured I’d learned enough that I didn’t need to write down what seemed like nothing more than a trite quote.
I filed those notes away and carried on. After surviving another St. Valentine’s Day (historically, a holiday of particularly horrific romantic blunders on my part), it seems like a good time to forage my emotional refrigerator for leftovers and revisit that quote– and thoughts from other speakers at that conference that I found in my notes– to see if there are some new ways to get bread from that stone.
Relationships are NOT Hard Work
We all know relationships can be confounding and that love can’t be taken for granted. Personally, I learned that stuff through my own, er, research. Which is to say, I found out the hard way through relationships that had ended in disarray– either from neglect (too little effort) or despite intense and well-intentioned attempts at repair (too much).
The notion that a relationship that is hard work has always seemed to me to be a losing proposition. I want to put in the effort and attention– but if it’s really “work,” it sounds mandatory. and, frankly, awful.
I prefer play.
So how can we acknowledging that love takes some effort, but what kind of effort? And how can we approach the work of relationships so it feels more like play and less like work?
I have had relationships that have worked well—effortlessly, actually. Relationships that didn’t seem like work at all—until they had a great fall. And then, all the work and all the king’s horses couldn’t put them back together again.
So what kind of effort was Le Guin talking about? What is this remaking and reconstituting the “bread of our love”? This artisan loaf of passion that can give us the sustenance of enduring love?
I looked over other notes from that session and given it some more thought. Which secret ingredients could be in this elusive delicacy?
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, stirring often.
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 of Wholebeing Institute coined this phrase to help 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.
Character Strengths: Expressing and Spotting
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, illuminates 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.
Rise with Positivity
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.
Cook ’em Up With Love (not to be confused with Louie’s Cooking With Love)
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!