What is love? The definition and meaning

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What is love?

What is love? It’s a question that has been debated for centuries. Everyone has their own opinion but, over the years, some definitions and meanings have persisted. Verity Hogan investigates

What is love?

Haddaway may have made it a club anthem in 1993, but it’s a question that’s been contemplated since the age of the Ancient Greeks.

The different forms of love, its physiological effects, and the correct way to use the word have all been subject to debate over the centuries. Even so, one fact is universally acknowledged: love is essential. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it, ‘What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable of love.’

What is love? A definition

Love is complex. And the word ‘love’ has been used to describe everything from a partner and a parent to a band or brand of ice cream. Understandably, this can lead to confusion.

While love has no standard definition, in the simplest terms, it’s an emotion associated with strong feelings of affection, protectiveness, warmth and respect. Everyone experiences this emotion differently.

When modern psychologists ask what’s love, they tend to define it as the strong desire for emotional union with another person. In fact, this definition has changed very little since Medieval times. It was during the 13th century that many of our romantic interpretations of love emerged, reflected in contemporary poetry and the practice of courtly love.

Start your own love story

Of course, when we talk about love, we can’t simply talk about romantic love. Love exists in several different forms and is expressed and felt very differently too.

What is love? The 7 states of love

The Ancient Greeks were the first to identify and name the different forms or states of love. They determined that there are seven states of love:

Storge
This is natural affection, the kind of love that is shared between family members.

Philia
The love you have for close friends.

Eros
Sexual and erotic desire.

Agape
Unconditional or divine love.

Ludus
A playful form of love, such as flirtation.

Pragma
Long-standing love as experienced in a long-term relationship or marriage

Philautia
Love of the self.

Breaking love down in this way reinforces its complexity, but it’s also strangely reassuring. Many people are concerned with how love should look. They worry whether they’re feeling it properly or performing it correctly. It’s these thoughts and anxieties that may well have led the Ancient Greeks to describe love as ‘the madness of the Gods.’

What love is puppy love

While most people are comfortable with the idea of romantic love – how it feels to fall in love and loving our partner – it can be challenging to explain or describe the way we love our family members and friends. The seven states illustrate how love is a feeling that encompasses a spectrum of emotions, all falling under one umbrella term. It similarly explains the shifting emotions that often take place within relationships. Love between romantic partners will likely start in the ludus state – playful and flirtatious – before shifting into eros, and then evolving into pragma. Each state is still love and one is no more desirable or important than the other.

What is love? Love is acceptance

Love, as a multi-faceted emotion, has many associations. Acceptance is one of the terms most commonly linked to love and the two are closely interwoven. After all, even self-love is dependent on being able to accept yourself as you truly are.

Start your own love story

It’s a pairing that writers describe often. Anais Nin asked, ‘What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is?’ and Agatha Christie agreed, ‘It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.’

Love is also regularly conflated with forgiveness, especially when discussed in religion. The Christian interpretation of love, for example, asks believers to have compassion for all people, even those who have done things that would be considered sins by followers of the faith.

Whether you’re religious or not, most people would acknowledge that forgiving someone is an act of love, to accept the bad with the good and react lovingly.

What is love? Love is powerful

While anger and frustration are often agents of change, love can also be a surprisingly forceful emotion. It’s love that unites families, diffuses tense situations, and acts as a driving force in many people’s lives.

The pursuit of love can induce people to cross continents, leave unhappy relationships, quit jobs, and run away to Vegas to get married.

Start your own love story

Love also has the power to instantly transform a moment or interaction. Think of the last time you were in a long queue at the bank. You’re bored, frustrated, and in a funk. But, when you reach the front of the line, the cashier greets you with a warm smile and a friendly demeanour. How do you feel now? This loving reaction will likely have changed your mood and will alter the way you feel about the experience when you look back afterwards.

What is love? Love is physical

You often hear people say that when they fell in love, they just knew. If they were asked, what is love, they would describe it as a gut feeling. A physiological response that feels like true love.

Our senses are the first thing to let us know that it might be love we’re feeling. Seeing a loving smile, hearing loving words, and feeling a loving touch can all reinforce that gut feeling that it’s love.

Love affects several areas of the brain. When we’re in the presence of a romantic partner – or even if we’re just thinking about them – the brain regions associated with reward and motivation are activated. Stimulating the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulated cortex can inhibit defensive behaviour, reduce anxiety, and increase trust.

At the same time, love deactivates the amygdala and frontal cortex, which reduces the likelihood of negative emotions and judgement – in other words, love really is blind! It can be addictive too. Love is associated with increased levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, which in turn leads to the release of dopamine, providing a pleasurable reward feeling.

Maternal love provokes a similar physiological response but, unlike romantic love, this type of love also activates the periaqueductal grey matter. This is unique to maternal love so it’s true, there’s nothing quite like a mother’s love.

Mother's love

What is love? Love is language

One of the problems with talking about and defining love is that the word is used to mean many different things. We say we’re ‘in love’ with a partner and that we love our best friend, but we also say that we love pizza or love it when it rains. Love has become one of the most frequently used words in our lexicon; a go-to term to add emphasis or emotion to a sentence. Unfortunately, the overuse of love has led to desensitisation. The more we use it, the less it really means.

Start your own love story

It takes discipline but changing the way we use language can help to restore the power of love as a word. Consciously swapping love for synonyms such as passion or enjoy could make a real difference. Phrases such as ‘I’m passionate about pizza’ or ‘I really enjoy it when it rains’ may feel strange at first, but the more you use them, the more weight love will carry when you do choose to say it.

Struggling to find alternatives you love? Here are a few of our favourite terms that express love in other languages:

  • Saudade (Portuguese): a feeling of intense longing for a person or place you love but is now lost
  • Kol No Yokan (Japanese): the sudden knowledge, upon meeting someone, that you are destined to fall in love with each another
  • Forelsket (Norwegian): the overwhelming euphoric feeling you experience when you’re falling in love
  • Kara Sevda (Turkish): when you feel that passionate, blinding love for another person
  • Viraag (Hindi): the emotional pain of being separated from a loved one
  • Yuanfen (Chinese): a relationship by fate or destiny

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