Love is all you need…

People United Research Article (Published 2 Oct 2013)

By Jo Broadwood

In February I was lucky enough to see a Transatlantic Session at the Southbank Centre. The Transatlantic Sessions have been going for years and are well known in the folk world. They started in 1995 when the acclaimed Scottish fiddle player Aly Bain brought musicians from different traditions together for a couple of weeks in a remote Scottish country house to live and play together, culminating in the recording of a series of half hour programmes. The programmes were so popular, that now Aly, and the Grammy award winning steel guitar player, Jerry Douglas, regularly pull together a bunch of superb musicians to tour, playing Irish and Scottish folk, blues, bluegrass, Appalachian, Cajun and country music.

The gig I saw featured, amongst others, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eric Bibb, Aoife O’Donovan, Emily Smith,
Bruce Molsky, Danny Thompson, John Doyle, John McCusker, and Mike McGoldrick, singing and playing, a whole range of instruments; Uilleann pipes, banjos, steel guitars, fiddles, piano, double bass, electric guitars, to name some. (As you can tell I’m a fan!) There is nothing quite so exhilarating as having so many talented musicians playing all together, sometimes as many as 15 at one time, and the evening was as joyful and uplifting as it was at times moving and inspiring. The atmosphere between the musicians themselves was quite extraordinary; as each one took their turn in the spotlight they spoke of the huge privilege it was to play with the others. Afterwards when describing the gig to a friend, I said half parodying it, ‘there was so much luurve on stage’. But actually love was what it felt like, communicated through the music and the connections on stage, and spilling out into the auditorium. Judging by the reactions of the people around me, I wasn’t the only one feeling it.

So it got me wondering what might be the factors at play in creating that atmosphere? And what might be the lessons for those of us in the arts interested and curious in building a kinder, more connected, more ‘other orientated’ society?

Sociologist Richard Sennett discusses the skills and qualities necessary for musicians to play well together in his book Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation [1]. As well as being a researcher and academic on cooperation Sennett is also a musician who trained at the Juilliard School as a young man. He reflects ‘Musicians in rehearsal are adult Eriksonians [2] they need to interact, to exchange for mutual benefit. They need to cooperate to make art’.

He identifies two different but complementary practices that are helpful for this kind of cooperation. Dialecticism: listening for and detecting what might be common ground, and dialogicism, where, though common ground is not necessarily established, through a process of questioning and reflection the two speakers become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another. Many arts activities and experiences involve listening, both more passive listening to a piece of theatre, music or spoken word, for example, and also active listening in participatory practice where you have the chance to check that you understand and are clear on what someone else means. Indeed many collaborative arts activities and processes have at their core developing the skills involved in cooperating with others.

Sennett also highlights the importance of empathy to cooperation, but neither empathy, nor the sophisticated level of cooperation displayed by the musicians on stage explain how moving the whole experience was. One of the friends I went with is no fan of that kind of music, yet even he was moved and uplifted afterwards.

What has helped make more sense of it has been reading Love 2.0 [3], the latest book by social psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson who for the last 20 years has been researching into the impact of positive emotions. She has discovered that emotions such as joy, amusement, gratitude, hope, can broaden your mindset and help you become more expansive, which in turn can make you more creative, flexible, attuned and wiser. If you experience these emotions regularly over time, you can become more resourceful and resilient, and it can set off an upward cycle of positive emotions, which she refers to as a positivity resonance system.

Within this positivity system she has redefined love as, ‘a micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being’. She separates this out from other concepts of love, such as all-consuming desire, exclusive bonds, loyalty and unconditional trust. (Although these can all strengthen and intensify these micro-moments of connection and can also be caused by them.) Furthermore she describes love defined this way as the supreme emotion, as it has the capacity unlike other positive emotions to connect people and groups to each other.

Her research has found that when people experience these moments of love three things happen. Our gestures and facial expressions start to mirror each other, and our brains synchronise too. In fact she goes further saying when people connect and share the same emotion neural coupling occurs,  ‘a micro-moment of love is a single act performed by two brains’.

Our hormones also play a part: previous research into oxytocin, a powerful neuropeptide, has demonstrated it gets released when we experience moments of connection in close relationships, for example between a mother and her baby, or between two lovers. More recently scientists have begun to examine its impact on our social interactions and have discovered it can shape our feelings of trust and reciprocity, and help us become more attuned and attentive to others.

Finally the vagus nerve, which connects our brain to our heart is strengthened by love. The tone of your vagus nerve is related to your calm and connect system which helps moderate blood pressure, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and your immune system. All three effects happening together help set up a virtuous positivity cycle, where quite literally love begets love.

Fredrickson has discovered that some of the factors that make micro-moments of love more likely are:

•    Eye contact, and smiling
•    Time and space to truly connect with someone else
•    Physical presence – being face to face
•    Feeling safe and free from threat
•    Feeling the same positive emotions as someone else

The arts have the ability to arouse powerful positive emotions in us, as such they may contribute to the development of positivity resonance systems. Furthermore, many arts activities provide us with opportunities for these micro-moments of connection; particularly participatory arts activities.

Fredrickson’s experiments with an ancient form of mind training called loving kindness meditation have demonstrated that when people learn to expand their capacity for love and kindness they experience more love, more engagement, more serenity, more joy, more amusement and more of every positive emotion measured. The benefits of this are many, including greater resilience, a greater capacity for strong social connections with others, and better health.

Six months later when I remember that concert it still makes me smile. It’s partly the memory of the exhilarating music, and the joy of watching talented musicians at the height of their powers, but it is also about the connections; the musicians with each other and, with the audience, and the audience with each other, as we witnessed our own pleasure reflected in the reactions of others. If we accept Fredrickson’s redefinition of love then it was indeed there, on stage. Given her discoveries about the long term health and social benefits of these micro-moments of connection, love may not be all we need, but we cannot do without it, and the arts can play a vital role in its development.


[1] Sennett, R. (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation Pub. Penguin

[2] Erik Erikson is a psychologist whose research into child development demonstrates that at about the age of 4 young children become capable of studying their own behaviour reflexively. In practical terms this means they become self-critical without the need for cueing or correction from parents or peers.

[3] Fredrickson, B. L. (2013) Love 2.0: how our supreme emotion affects everything we think, do, feel, and become Pub. USA Penguin