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A spirit that is not afraid

The psychology behind Valentine's Day

A graphic showing a brain with a cupid arrow through it in front of a heart.
A graphic showing a brain with a cupid arrow through it in front of a heart.

The topic of love has been studied by researchers for years. Believe it or not, there is actually science behind why we get “butterflies” and feel a certain way that often seems to surpass the simple feeling of happiness.

Dr. Sarah Lust is a professor at Auburn University who teaches health psychology as well as several other psychology-related courses. She shared some of her knowledge of the science of emotions and neurology.

“There is a debate in the literature about how many emotions there are…usually around eight is a common number that they throw out: joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, interest, pride, contempt, shame and guilt, but as you can see, love is not really on the list,” Lust said.

Lust explained that researchers do not tend to think of love as an emotion, but more of as a combination of the two emotions of joy and interest being directed towards someone.

Lust then went over four of the main neurotransmitters surrounding the idea of love: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and cortisol.

First, dopamine levels fluctuate frequently throughout the day and heighten when humans experience pleasure. Lust shared examples of the brain releasing dopamine when someone gets a good grade, receives an awaited text message or when binging a Netflix show.

Second, oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that relates more to romantic interest. Oxytocin is released from bonding physically with someone. This could be produced by giving someone a hug, sexual relations with a partner or even the way a mom is physically bonded to her baby when giving birth.

Third, humans get an increase in serotonin when feeling calm or serene. An example of serotonin increase could be from relaxing at the beach or when feeling at peace around someone.

Fourth, cortisol is a stress hormone that increases in times of anxiousness, like during an exam week. 

Lust shared that when we are falling in love, often our serotonin levels surprisingly go down, while our cortisol levels increase because of all the excitement and nervousness that we experience initially.

This response of our autonomic systems to excitement is how we can explain getting “butterflies.” Lust said that riding a rollercoaster may have the same effect because of these short-term excitement hormones that are produced.

Lust explained that most of our close relationships, both romantic and non-romantic, tend to be formed by repetitive exposure and proximity, a concept known as the propinquity effect.

However, this is not all there is to it. As far as wisdom in choosing a partner, Lust shared that to her, good qualities to have in a relationship include trust, honesty, compassion and kindness.

Lust talked about a psychology survey where a variety of people were asked what the most important thing was to them in a relationship. The survey showed that both men and women valued “trust” as their number one most important trait to have in a relationship with a partner.

While people generally tend to have similar morals regarding relationships, the scope of who they choose as partners varies drastically by the realizations of their own appearance.

“People actually tend to typically self-sort into their own attractiveness categories…How that really happens – we don’t know. It doesn’t exactly sound politically correct and yet somehow biologically this is what we tend to do,” Lust said.

Lust explained how people are aware of what they feel are objective attractiveness standards and choose romantic partners based on this reasoning.

“It’s not intentional. It’s just if you take 100 couples and you rate them individually on attractiveness, it’ll turn out that the people that are thought to be highly attractive actually tend to find each other more, the mediums, and in the lower attractiveness,” Lust said.

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Based on this reasoning, Lust shared that “opposites attract” is a myth.

She stated that research shows anything connecting people out of commonality tends to create an instant bond. The number of Michaels and Mckaylas who have gotten married or people who have become friends because they share a birthday were some different examples she gave.

“It’s bizarre that we’re not even always conscious of it, but the more similar we are, the more that we tend to like each other. We’re literally looking for another copy of ourselves,” Lust said.

Dr. Heather Hardin is an adjunct professor at Auburn who is teaching Child Development and Parenting Education right now. She was able to give some insight into more of a relational side of love and how to love other people from a human development and family sciences standpoint.

“We need each other. We can’t even survive without each other...Valentine’s Day is not just even our romantic loves but just our humanness and loving on each other. We grow and thrive as a result of each other,” Hardin said.

Hardin thinks that as humans, we are constantly learning how to connect to other people. She explained that understanding people is how we can approach them with love and tenderness. 

However, she believes that we must understand ourselves first. Once we understand ourselves is when we will be able to seek to understand others and begin to love them in a deeper way.

Hardin also thinks that joy plays a big role in what it means to love. 

“It’s not that everything’s always happy peaches or whatever. It’s this idea to really feel joy in someone – to delight in someone. Like, I just delight in the students that are in my class,” Hardin said.

Hardin then described the importance of the nurturance that human beings need, even stemming from infants needing a mother’s touch. 

She shared an example that babies will even have reduced growth hormones if they are not held enough. Hardin thinks that this should say something about how we are as humans.

“From the beginning, little, tiny human beings can recognize the sound of their mother’s voice within 36 hours. It’s because they’re already understanding the impact of that love, even before they’re born,” Hardin said. 

Hardin then began to explain hedonism versus eudemonia. Hedonism is instant gratification, while eudemonia teaches that there is something more purposeful and deeper, almost like a higher calling. 

She used TikTok, while funny and entertaining, as an example of hedonism because of the quick pleasure that it brings.

In order to experience eudemonia, however, vulnerability is key.

“If you can get over the negative aspect of being vulnerable, there’s just something that’s wonderful about the uncertainty of it. It’s ok to be vulnerable when we care about somebody,” Hardin said.

The basis of love, according to Hardin, is to know and be known by someone.

She explained that we take the time to get to know someone, not so that we can try to change them but in order to love them for who they are.

“We should just give them a little bit of room to just be a ‘human becoming,’ not even ‘being,’ but a ‘human becoming.’ We’re all trying to figure it out,” Hardin said.

Hardin believes that to love someone takes a lot of courage because vulnerability takes a lot of courage.

She explained more about vulnerability by using an example of when she used to teach children, and they would run up to her and tell her that they loved her.

“And so what would you say back? ‘I love you too’ – with total abandonment! Because you’re not worried about saying something wrong or maybe that it’s not appropriate. ‘I love you – I love exactly the person that you are and the person that you’re becoming and everything about you,’” Hardin said.

When asked to define what “love” is, Hardin said, “Love is knowing yourself in order to give it away to others.”

This goes back to the idea of vulnerability and Hardin’s thought that we must first understand ourselves and then consequently seek to understand others to love them best.

“The thing about love is that you can keep giving it away and away and away and you never run out. In fact, I think it may make it more…It’s kind of like knowledge. It’s probably why I love teaching. You can keep giving it away, and you never lose anything,” Hardin said.

This Valentine’s Day, whether it is for a significant other, a family member or a friend, everyone should try to increase someone’s dopamine levels by giving their love away to those around them.

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