The Most Powerful Motivator: Putting a Dent in Modern Expectations of Love

When people say that love is the best motivator, I’m quite inclined to believe them.

The best boss I ever had motivated me with love. I didn’t join his team, work hard for him, and stick around because he paid me well or commanded a certain distant respect. Instead, from the moment we met, he took the time to cultivate a loving relationship with me. I loved who he was, how he treated me, and how often we connected around our shared values and vision. I would have done just about anything for him.

Americans are conditioned from young childhood to think of love only in the romantic sense, and to expect that it will be a continuous, blissful feeling of connectedness to one person who will meet the majority of our emotional needs for the rest of our lives.

But lately, everyone from advice columnists to research scientists have cautioned that such narrow and outlandish expectations may be responsible for the all-time highs in the divorce rate, prevalence of depression, and reported feelings of isolation in the American population.

So if love is the best professional motivator, and our narrow, sky-high expectations of love are responsible for so much misery, then it would seem that the modern love myth is due for a great big denting.

That’s why it’s so promising to learn that the notion of the one great and everlasting love has been flatly debunked by brain science. The research of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson indicates that, rather than being a state of continuous connectedness, love happens in small moments with many people in the course of day-to-day life:

Love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store.

But perhaps even more promisingly, scientists are learning that certain simple meditations can overwhelmingly improve our ability to positively and lovingly connect with everyone in our lives: partners, friends, children, and colleagues:

In a 2010 study from her lab, Fredrickson randomly assigned half of her participants to a “love” condition and half to a control condition. In the love condition, participants devoted about one hour of their weeks for several months to the ancient Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation.

Fredrickson and her team found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, people could significantly increase their vagal tone by self-generating love through loving-kindness meditation. Since vagal tone mediates social connections and bonds, people whose vagal tones increased were suddenly capable of experiencing more micro-moments of love in their days.

Perhaps denting the future is, at least in part, about cultivating loving relationships, and practicing more compassion and loving-kindness in our work environments. Indeed, such a practice may help us to attract, motivate and retain the most talented people while improving our own health and well-being as leaders.

For more on these exciting findings, read this fascinating article in The Atlantic.