Whether you are single, dating, or married you will likely be asked the question “what are you doing for Valentine’s Day?” For some, that question prompts the blood-pumping response of excitement as they anticipate a passionate night with a significant other. For others, that question prompts a different kind of blood-pumping response filled with anxiety and fear over being alone once again on the “lover’s holiday.” Then there is the group of individuals who find themselves indifferent to the “Hallmark-created” holiday and February 14th is no more than the halfway point in the shortest month of the year. Wherever you find yourself consider the idea that compassion may be the better solution for how to approach this hormone-inducing holiday.
First, consider the neuroscience behind love. Over twenty years ago, Helen Fisher started her journey on understanding love’s effect on the brain through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). She proposed that there are three core brain systems for mating and reproduction:
- Lust– responsible for the sex drive or libido.
- Attraction– the early intense stage of a romantic love.
- Attachment– deep connection with a long-term partner.
She discovered that the part of the brain most active when experiencing love was the ventral tegmental area, which is linked to the nucleus accumbens, most known for being the “pleasure-center” of the brain. In the throes of the lust and attraction stages, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, dopamine flushes the brain creating a euphoric experience. You might be thinking one point for seeking out love on Valentine’s Day, but there is more to consider about the effects of love on the brain. Along with dopamine, your brain experiences the effects of cortisol, norepinephrine, and lowered serotonin. The combination of cortisol and norepinephrine produces a number of physical and emotional responses, such as sweaty palms, racing heart, feelings of anxiety, fear, uneasiness, and flushed cheeks. In addition, the lowered levels of serotonin produces feelings that Harvard professor Richard Schwartz describes as the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love.” Scientists have described this experience as being most similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder. No wonder some many people are high-strung around this holiday as even the idea of a potential love can subject your brain to all of these anxiety-producing hormones.
Now let us consider the benefits of focusing your attention outward and showing compassion to others on Valentine’s Day. The definition of compassion is the emotional response and genuine desire to provide help when someone is suffering. Studies have shown that the same “pleasure center” region of the brain described above is active when one engages in a charitable act. The difference in the outcome of compassion’s influence on the pleasure center lies within the motivation behind the act. Compassion requires selflessness and an outward focus whereas romantic love is dependent on another’s capacity to meet your expectations. Furthermore, romantic love sets you up to wonder if your significant other will fulfill your desires or leave you unsatisfied within your hormone-enriched emotional experience. It is hard to be unsatisfied when showing compassion to others because true compassion is not seeking self-satisfaction in the first place. One study on how happiness relates to levels of cellular inflammation in the human body found that people who reported they were living the “good life” still had high inflammation levels (known for being the root of cancer and other diseases), whereas those who reported living a life of purpose and meaning had low inflammation levels. A compassionate life is one purposely focused on others as opposed to being focused on personal satisfaction.
So instead of subjecting yourself to the anxiety-producing quest of obtaining a romantic experience on Valentine’s Day, consider spending your time showing someone in need some compassion.
For those willing to endure the potential emotional roller-coaster for a chance at a romantic experience this Valentine’s Day consider the idea that one study suggests that compassion is a trait that makes you more attractive to a mate as male and female participants agreed that “kindness” was one of the most desirable traits in a romantic partner.