The fact that they fell in love was, on the surface, ridiculous. She was a leading researcher on love. He was the leading researcher on loneliness. And yet it happened. Ironic? Poetic? Probably both.
Steph was at a boring academic lecture. The guy next to her whispered in her ear: “If I start snoring, punch me.”
She giggled. The man seated to her other side was already dozing. Steph whispered back: “He’s snoring. Do you want me to punch him, too?” They laughed.
“I’m John, by the way.”
But she already knew who he was: John Cacioppo. The John Cacioppo. She’d read all his studies in graduate school. She knew his work inside and out. What she didn’t know was how handsome he was…
In the following days there were text messages back and forth. Lots of text messages. The two of them discussed… statistical significance in research methodology. (Apparently, this is how neuroscientists flirt.)
Steph had found love – in more ways than one. She had found it first in her research a while back. Steph was the one who discovered the brain network uniquely responsible for love. And her studies showed it sharpened our minds, made us more creative and improved our social abilities. But more important than that, she found it was essential.
From Wired for Love:
My scientific research on the brain has convinced me that a healthy love life is as necessary to a person’s well-being as nutritious food, exercise, or clean water. Evolution has sculpted our brains and bodies specifically to build and benefit from lasting romantic connections. When those connections are frayed or ruptured, the consequences to our mental and physical health are devastating.
She was one of the leading experts on the neuroscience of love. But she didn’t truly understand it – really feel it’s power – until that day she met John. It was like studying roller coasters all your life but never having been on one.
John’s work had shown the terrifying perils of loneliness. That it increased your likelihood of death by 25-30% over 7 years. And he found, shockingly, that lonely people spend as much time with others as non-lonely people do. Ever felt lonely in a crowd? Exactly. Loneliness wasn’t about how much time you spent with people – it was about how meaningful you felt your relationships were. Loneliness is an alarm system telling us to reconnect with others.
Steph would come to realize that loneliness was the opposite of love. And yet here they were: Dr. Love and Dr. Loneliness. Together. But these two weren’t opposites. They both had devoted their lives to understanding the deep, fundamental need we all had for connection to others.
Time passed. Their relationship blossomed. John and their mutual friend Laura were on a flight to Paris to meet Steph at a conference. Laura had recently been ordained as a minister. “I could marry you two today,” she joked.
John grabbed his phone and started typing a text: “Do you want to get married after work today?”
Laura freaked: “John, wait—what are you doing?! Are you crazy? These things must be planned out.” John just kept typing. Laura shook her head. “John, you don’t know women.”
John smirked: “You don’t know Steph.”
The reply came back quickly: “Sure.” And Steph dashed out of her hotel to get a white dress.
Later that day they gathered with friends at a park in Paris for an impromptu ceremony. It was all smiles – at least until the police arrived…
Events like this required a permit. And you’re not allowed to stand on the lawn. The crowd protested: You’re going to stop a wedding?!? This was supposed to be the most romantic city in the world! They shouted — like that famous line from the movie “300”, but instead of “Sparta” they screamed “THIS! IS! PARIS!”
The police relented. And John and Steph were married. And it was wonderful.
I wish I could end the story there. I really do…
But some time later, John was diagnosed with cancer. It was serious. It was terminal. But these two didn’t change. They were still in love. Still the same old John and Steph. When the oncologist gave them a stack of literature on coping, John said, “Oh, great, psychology homework.”
And Steph replied: “Maybe they cite our research?” They laughed.
But John’s health declined. And, finally, the time came. The last thing he did before closing his eyes forever was to tell Steph, “I love you.”
Her pain was almost unbearable. It was one of the moments where you want to report life to the Better Business Bureau and say this is not how things should be. She was alone. Disconnected. Bereft of the very thing that both of them spent their lives studying.
She would watch videos of his lectures on YouTube just to feel near him again. And one stood out. It was like he was speaking to her:
Sometimes when the world looks darkest, we need to turn that adversity to an advantage, we need to figure out what are the opportunities that are now available, and not give up… The worst thing you can tell a person who’s grieving is time will heal. It’s not time—it’s the actions, cognitions, how you approach other people.
She knew he was right. She needed to do something. To act. To reconnect. And then, as fate would have it, the opportunity presented itself: the pandemic hit. And everyone from CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta to her eighty-year-old neighbor was reaching out to Dr. Love to learn how to stay connected. To fight loneliness. To be happy again.
What did she tell them? Well, that’s why you and I are here. She said the answer was “Grace.” No, not your aunt Grace and not the thing you say before Thanksgiving dinner. G.R.A.C.E. was an acronym for what Steph felt were the most important things you can do to take care of your social body, to engage that love network in the brain and revitalize your life when times get hard.
Stephanie Cacioppo’s moving book is “Wired for Love.”
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Gratitude gets mentioned so often these days it’s become audio wallpaper to many of us. Something always in the background that gets tuned out. But studies consistently show it works. We just need to take the time to actually sit down and be grateful.
From Wired for Love:
Every day, try writing down five things that you truly appreciate. Studies show that such simple exercises can significantly improve subjective well-being and reduce feelings of loneliness.
Stop taking the positive stuff for granted. There are many, many good things in your life. Things so good that you expect someone to show up with an Excel spreadsheet and say, “Sorry, there’s been an existential accounting error. Your life wasn’t supposed to be this lucky. You were supposed to be starving, dirt poor and suffering from dysentery in the mid-1400’s.”
Remember the good. Appreciate it. Savor it.
(To learn more about how to improve your relationships, check out my new bestselling book here.)
Gratitude is something you can do all by yourself, in your head. But the real work of reconnecting extends well beyond the bone vault your brain sits in and actually involves – spoiler alert – other people…
When someone else is feeling lonely you usually try to help them.
And that is a terrible idea. Seriously. Take that idea, tear it up and throw it in someone else’s garbage. Give it a Viking funeral. I’m not being mean; I’m actually referencing Steph and John’s research.
Nobody likes pity, especially when we feel down and alone. What we do like is to feel needed. To feel vital. To be necessary. As strange as it may sound, when someone is feeling lonely don’t offer help – ask them to help you.
From Wired for Love:
Being shown respect, being depended upon, being made to understand your own importance—all these things can give a lonely person a sense of worth and belonging that decreases feelings of isolation.
It has to start with them acting, not you acting. And if you need to feel better, act. Reach out. Even when it doesn’t feel good. Heck, especially when it doesn’t feel good.
Often when we’re not feeling so hot we just want to enter our castle and pull up the drawbridge. But this is the time to reach out. Not just to friends but even to strangers. Look, I’m as introverted as they come. Talking to the person next to me at Starbucks is one of those many things I’m happy to die without doing — like having kidney stones, going to prison or reading the “Twilight” series.
But research shows we’re often wrong about how awkward or inconvenient it is to talk to strangers. We underestimate how good it can feel.
From Wired for Love:
A colleague at the University of Chicago, the psychologist Nicholas Epley, has found that people significantly underestimate how much meaning and joy they would get from striking up a conversation with a stranger, and so they don’t.
Keep retreating from others and you are playing leapfrog with a unicorn, my friend. And if you are always waiting for someone else to initiate contact you are missing so many, many opportunities for a better life.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Conversation is great but we need to take it to the next level to really feel fulfilled…
To many of us, going out and working during your spare time, for free, sounds horrible at the molecular level. But the research shows it can make you feel so much happier.
From Wired for Love:
Volunteer—at the library, the running club, the Red Cross, you name it. Be part of something bigger than yourself. Helping others, sharing your knowledge, feeling a sense of mission—all this will give you a feeling of self-expansion that is similar to what people experience when they’re in a loving relationship…
Sometimes we feel guilty. I get there. When times get hard those guilty moments replay in my head over and over like my own personal Zapruder film. We can wonder if we’re a good person. If we were good, wouldn’t we already be doing generous things for others? But that’s not how it works…
Timothy Wilson’s research shows that we don’t do good things because we feel we’re good – it’s the reverse. We do kind things and that’s what makes us feel we’re a good person. He calls it “Do good, be good.” Don’t wait to feel like you’re a saint to go act saintly. Do the altruistic thing now and your brain will go, “I volunteer on a regular basis. I guess I’m a good person.” This is how we get past the guilt.
Steph gave of herself when the pandemic hit and people needed her knowledge. And it helped her heal. You can do the same. Help others and you won’t just feel like a good person – you will be a good person. You’ll glow like Marie Curie.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
And now we get to the one many people who are feeling down disagree with me on…
When we feel low, we can go back and forth between guilt and shame like they’re tasty dipping sauces. This is no solution. This is, in fact, the problem. While your actions may not always feel like they have meaning, they definitely have consequences. You have a choice.
From Wired for Love:
You can decide right now—yes, right now—if you want to feel lonely or happy. When we look at psychological interventions for lonely people, changing their attitudes and outlook has more effect on their loneliness ratings than increasing opportunities for social contact.
Stop waiting for change to just “happen.” You don’t become better simply by waiting around. You’re not going to passively and mystically transform into a different person with a new life. This is your life. Right here. Right now. Make a decision.
Just like gratitude, changing your perspective is huge. Or reach out. But it all starts with a choice. And that choice is not a burden – it’s an opportunity.
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
Wow. We got all serious. And much of this has been very thinky and cerebral. Time to shift gears. Let’s take a lesson from crazy, impulsive youth…
Have fun. We shouldn’t need a reminder about this but we all too often do. And share those good moments with others. It makes a difference – for you, for them and for your relationships.
From Wired for Love:
Science shows that enjoyment is a predictor of well-being and life satisfaction. Luckily, positive events tend to occur more often than negative ones. Yet not everyone makes a point of enjoying them, a process psychologists call capitalization. Sharing good news and good times with others helps increase positive emotions and reduce loneliness.
After John passed, a friend recommended that Steph start running. And run she did. Six miles a day. Every day. And those were six miles where she wasn’t dwelling on her loss. Where she felt energized and free.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Let me add that the overexamined life might not be worth living either. Stop thinking and go have some fun.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, time to round it all up – and we’ll see just how much of an effect love and connection can have on that gray matter of yours. How it can not only heal your brain metaphorically, but also quite literally…
This is how to make your life awesome with GRACE:
We don’t fully understand life and we don’t fully understand the brain. All the philosophy and all the neuroscience don’t have all the answers. But sometimes love and connection do. They’re a big deal. Big enough to make a difference. Big enough for crazy writers to compose long blog posts about them.
Love and connection can heal us when nothing else does. Steph experienced this herself. She saw a patient who had a severe stroke that caused “left-sided spatial hemineglect.” This is a very odd disorder where your mind’s eye becomes half blind. The patient’s actual eyes worked fine but her brain ignored half the world. She could only “see” things on her right side. It gets worse – the patient was an artist. Imagine the difficulty of drawing the world when half of it is invisible to you.
Steph worked with her to keep looking at things from different angles. To use mirrors. To push, pull and stretch her brain to try and take in more of the world in front of her. Like physical therapy for her mind. She made progress. She slowly got better. But there was one thing that drove her brain to work harder, to stretch more toward taking in the world hidden from her…
Steph placed a photo of the woman’s grandchild on the side she could not see. And her brain raged to reach out, to push beyond its weakened abilities and take in that image. The emotions drove her gray matter to get stronger, to heal so it could see her grandchild.
With time, the left side of the world started to come into focus. First as jagged strips, like sections of a stained-glass window. And then, as her brain formed new connections, the picture became whole. After a year she had made a complete recovery.
Actually, she went beyond a full recovery. Through the hard work, driven by the love for her little one, she gained a fuller understanding of angle and proportions. She not only saw the world again; she saw it differently. She experimented more. Her artistic style evolved. Her insecurities disappeared. She became a better artist because the need for connection healed her – quite literally.
Our relationships with others are a happiness savings bond that pays the best dividends. And if you want to be wrapped in the warm hoodie of personal fulfillment, please don’t just read this and then let the words fade into the dark infinite attic of the Internet. Try GRACE. Put it to use. It’s not going to be IVed into your system by one quick skim. Do the work. Reach out. Connect.
I know two people who are doing that. My friends Nick and Chloe. They’re getting married next week. So what do you say we try some GRACE right now…
After you’ve shown yourself a little Gratitude for the good things in your life, send Nick an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and just tell him “Congratulations on your wedding!” You’re reaching out to a stranger as we talked about with Reciprocity. You’re showing a little Altruism. You’re making a Choice to do something to make yourself and someone else smile. Imagine the look on Nick’s face when he gets a bunch of emails from strangers all over the world who wish him the best. It’s fun. That’s Enjoyment. And you can have it all for the low, low price of a four-word email.
We can learn a lot from Dr. Love and Dr. Loneliness. There is a wonderful world on the other side of connection to others. A warm majestic world, waiting for us to join it.
Send Nick an email. You’ll feel better. You’ll sleep better. I’ll sleep better. Oh, and please —
Punch me if I snore, Steph.