If you ask people to come up with a list of emotions, love is usually one of the first they mention. It is an ever-present topic in human life and culture. One study found that love was rated as the most prototypically “emotional” of all emotions, and another that love was the emotion most frequently experienced in everyday life.
It seems strange, then, that love does not feature in most psychologists’ lists of “basic emotions”, nor in Psychology Today’s own subject menu, unlike anger, anxiety, fear, grief, happiness, and jealousy, which are all there. If you try to find entries on “love,” the closest you will get are "relationships," “love bombing,” “polyamory,” or “sex addiction.”
Over the centuries, opinions about love have changed, but for many thinkers it has been too complex, too multifaceted, or perhaps even too fundamental to take its place alongside anger, fear, and the rest as an everyday human “emotion.” In recent decades, love has been theorised as an art, a social practice, a mode of sustained attention, a habit, a drive, a syndrome, a disorder, a way of being in the world, a relationship, a narrative, a commitment, or an ethic.
But perhaps the mistake is trying to talk about love in the singular at all, when that simple four-letter English word can refer to such a panoply of different states. C. S. Lewis famously spoke about “The Four Loves” in a series of BBC radio talks which became a book of the same name in 1960. His four were affection, friendship, romantic love, and charity or agape—pronounced "a-ga-pay"—the term for Christian love used by St. Paul and other New Testament writers. Lewis's typology invites us to think of the many different sub-categories of attachment, care-giving, sex, romance, and ethical positivity which might come under the umbrella of "love."
Historically, in the West, the two kinds of love that have received the most attention are probably the sexual (in its many forms, romantic or otherwise) and the divine. My favourite visual depiction of the passions appears as the frontispiece of a book of French moral philosophy, published in English in 1649. Here, the passions are, like criminals, in chains and being held to account by the figures of divine grace and reason at the top.
Towards the bottom of this morally didactic image, “love” is depicted as a diminutive Cupid, over whose innocent shoulder lurk the threatening figures of “desire” and “boldnesse.” For a moralist like the book's author, J.F. Senault, human love took its place among the other passions, but it harboured a dangerous sensuality, which needed to be channelled into divine love and “sacred friendship.”
In a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. also took up the question of love. Like Lewis, he turned back to ancient Greek terms and distinguished between eros, philia, and agape. Eros was the love of beauty discussed by Plato, philia the love between two friends who do things together, and agape a kind of limitless generosity of spirit. You should love every man, King said, because God loves him, not because he is likeable: “he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.”
King’s sermon also touched on our question of whether love is an emotion at all—a question which he tended to answer in the negative when it came to agape. King pointed out that Jesus had said, “Love your enemies,” not “Like your enemies,” and commented that love of this kind was not “sentimental,” not about having positive feelings. Agape love was an attitude, a lasting commitment, a determination to act with understanding and goodwill.
This brings us finally to the question of what psychologists have had to say in recent times about love.
I think one of the reasons it has only rarely been considered an “emotion” is that love is hard to study experimentally. The prototypical emotion of the 20th-century psychologist was a fleeting, bounded, embodied response in one individual to a relatively simple stimulus of a kind that could be recorded and measured in laboratory conditions. Ideally the induced emotional state would be accompanied by a single distinctive facial expression. The love between friends, lovers, or family members doesn’t really fit that template.
More recently, some affective scientists have redefined “love” in a different way, to mean a short burst of warm feeling, a “micro-moment” of connection. The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson pioneered this view in her 2013 book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. As is evident from the title, Fredrickson thinks love is an emotion. However, for her, it is not something lasting, romantic, religious, or ethical—as it had been for many other thinkers through the centuries. In her view, “love” can be created by a smiling stranger in a coffee shop as much as by thoughts of a friend, lover, or family member. "Love" is used in this theory as a term for “micro-moments of positive connection,” which lead to the release of the “tend and befriend” hormone, oxytocin, noted for its roles in lowering heart rate and blood pressure and producing a warm feeling inside.
Facial expressions and hormonal surges surely accompany some of our emotions some of the time, but for most people, such physical accompaniments, even if they are easier to measure in a lab, are not themselves the emotions. The question remains open, then, of whether love is an emotion, and in what sense. I changed my own mind on this question several times when writing the chapter entitled “Looking For Love” in my new book on the history of emotions —veering from being certain love could not be an emotion to thinking that maybe it was.
After all, when you come to think of it, none of our most important emotions really fit into the templates provided for them by psychology, do they?
Barclay, Katie (2021). Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dixon, Thomas (2023).The History of Emotions: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, chapter 6: 'Looking for love'.
Fehr, B., & Russell, J. A. (1984). Concept of emotion viewed from a prototype perspective. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 113(3), 464–486. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-34126.96.36.1994
Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2013). Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Martin, Adrienne M. (ed.) (2019). The Routledge Handbook of Love in Philosophy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Pismenny, Arina & Prinz, Jesse (2017). Is love an emotion? In Christopher Grau & Aaron Smuts (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Love. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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Trampe D., Quoidbach J., & Taquet M. (2015). Emotions in everyday life. PLoS ONE 10(12): e0145450. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0145450