The Molecule of Love and Empathy

February 14 often causes us to think about love – whether it’s a reflective appreciation for the people in our lives we cherish, or an inquiry into what love is – how do we define it, what causes it, and, most importantly, how can we all experience more of it?

While love is a difficult thing to define, we do know that there is some science behind it. Oxytocin is a feel-good molecule released by mammals that helps to create human bonds and feelings of love. Women have the highest amount of oxytocin while they are pregnant, facilitating mother-child bonds. We release oxytocin when we interact with others, like while kissing a significant other or hugging a close friend. In short, it is produced when we are interacting with people close to us – it is the chemistry behind the love we feel for the people in our lives.

However, oxytocin doesn’t only create the warm-fuzzies that bond us to friends and family. I recently watched a talk on TED by Paul Zak, author of “The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity”. In this talk, Paul refers to oxytocin as the “morality molecule,” because this same molecule that causes us to feel love for the people in our lives also causes us to feel empathy for strangers. In studies, when people were shown videos of people struggling with issues like cancer and poverty, they experienced increased levels of oxytocin – and oxytocin levels corresponded with how much empathy a person reportedly felt. According to Paul, increased levels of oxytocin also make us more likely to trust, give and behave morally.

So what does all that mean? Love, empathy and morality are biologically tied together – when we experience more of one, we experience more of all three. For me, this makes a lot of sense – when I do something good for somebody else, or when someone else does something good for me, it heightens my sense of others and their needs. It also causes me to feel more warmth and trust towards the people in my life, as well as an increased sense of well-being and happiness.

In short, doing good makes us feel more love, and love makes us happy. This Valentine’s Day, the best way to celebrate all of the complexities of love might be to simply do good – by volunteering, helping a neighbor or giving to charity. One way to do something good is to a make a donation to a cause someone cares about. The World of Children has e-cards available that support orphan care.

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