The everyday experiences that make us feel loved
By Christian Jarrett
Psychologists, philosophers and poets have devoted many years reflecting on the meaning of love for another. A less-explored question – the focus of a study to appear in the January 2019 issue of Journal of Social and Personal Relationships – is what makes us feel loved by others?
More specifically, the study investigated whether there is widespread agreement about the everyday experiences, romantic and non-romantic, that lead us (or US citizens, at least) to feel loved. Some of the results are obvious – many participants agreed that making love, being hugged, receiving compliments and gifts, make us feel loved. But there was even stronger agreement that mundane yet touching gestures make us feel loved, such as our pets being happy to see us, a child snuggling up to us, or someone showing us compassion.
Employing an approach known as “cultural consensus theory”, Saeideh Heshmati at Penn State University and her colleagues presented nearly 500 online participants (men and women aged 18 to 93 selected to be representative of the US population as a whole) with 60 everyday scenarios, and for each one asked them to indicate whether it was true or false that most people would feel loved in that situation (or to pass if they didn’t know).
Other scenarios for which there was particularly strong agreement that the situation would provoke felt love included being cared for when sick; being told “I love you”; spending time with one’s children; being made to feel special; and spending quality time with someone.
There was far less agreement around whether situations that do not involve other people prompt feelings of being loved or not, such as the sun shining or eating one’s favourite food.
In terms of the everyday situations that do not provoke feelings of being loved, there was striking agreement that this is the case for any behaviours by others that imply they are being overly controlling or possessive, such as wanting to know where you are at all times, or wanting to spend all their time with you. The researchers speculated this might be a reflection of the individualistic culture in America with its celebration of personal liberty, and that findings in other cultures may differ.
Another angle on their results the researchers looked at was whether there are particular groups who are more at odds with the consensus on felt love than others. They found that men seemed less attuned to the consensus than women. Perhaps, they suggested, this is a reflection of men’s greater focus on passionate, sexual love (as revealed by earlier research) and the fact women may have found it easier to reflect on the everyday, nonsexual love explored in the current study. Also, people currently in a romantic relationship showed more awareness of the consensus on felt love (perhaps because they experience the emotion more often, the researchers surmised), as did white people (perhaps because, being the ethnic majority, their beliefs formed more of the consensus).
In terms of personality, participants higher in trait agreeableness were more in tune with the collective views on felt love, which seems intuitive, but so too were participants higher in neuroticism (i.e. with low emotional stability, who are known to go through more relationship difficulties on average), which is harder to explain. This last finding may reflect that “individuals high in neuroticism still experience love, they simply do not have lasting love experiences…,” the researchers said.
The main take-away from the research, Heshmati and her team added, is that “people feel loved in a range of settings much wider than just romantic relationships ..”, and “although knowledge of love can differ between people, there is a consensus within the US culture about which scenarios elicit love in most people.”
An important caveat to remember when interpreting these results is that participants were sharing their beliefs about the times they believed “most people” feel loved – they weren’t actually reporting their own experiences (though they may have extrapolated from their own experiences to make inferences about people in general). It would be intriguing to see how the results might differ if participants were simply asked to report their own experiences. For now this fascinating research lays the groundwork for future investigations to explore felt love in other cultures and to see how it interacts with other psychological traits not measured here, such as attachment style.
Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest