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Amy Tardio

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Love Strong

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 8:08 am

Tom Coughlin, coach of the 2012 XLVI Super Bowl champion New York Giants will go down in history for empowering his long shot team, not with a "come-on" fist-pump but with an expression of effusive love during his Super Bowl-eve huddle.

What motivated the notoriously conservative coach? The teamwork and sheer heart the players had shown in the weeks leading up to the game. Bravado was absent from the play list. During the regular season the Giants were 9 and 7 -- nowhere near Super Bowl shoo-ins. But Coughlin witnessed a growing camaraderie, work ethic and belief among his team that translated to "unstoppable." He fell in love with the "G-Men," as they are affectionately known in my neck of the woods, and he let them know it! No Viking cheers or "now or never" ultimatums necessary for that pre-game speech. The night of Feb. 4, 2012, the G-Men "had him at hello." Their historic win the next day speaks for itself.

Heart is that secret ingredient that victory by a hair so often comes down to.

Love by definition

This past Valentine's Day, many celebrated romantic love with traditional boxes of chocolates and intimate dinners. We sent cards, texts, posted Valentine photos and expressions on Facebook and may have even gotten a bit sad if our inbox was less than full. But love in all its forms, from generosity to exuberance for a beautiful sunset, is what many would agree is what life essentially boils down to. It's the meaning behind what we cherish, the "why" of how we choose to expend our precious energy and the legacy we hope to leave behind in the world.

How love impacts our lives and actions is a powerful question. Love in all its forms has intrigued philosophers, psychologists and writers since the beginning of time. In their groundbreaking book Character Strengths and Virtues (Oxford, 2004) positive psychology founders Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and Chris Peterson, Ph.D. describes love as a strength that falls under the virtue of humanity. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, love is considered in relation to friendship, passion and values (including "I love chocolate"), and as way of understanding the "God-like" unconditional love for others. It is clear, while a variety of definitions exist; love is at the heart of our humanness.

Love is about survival

One of my favorite theories, which Tom Coughlin may have intuitively tapped into, is that love is part of the survival instinct. Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, author of Positivity, studies the physical and neurobiological reaction when people meaningfully connect, specifically by making eye contact or through touch. This "love" connection, along with a dedicated effort to build positive emotions, is what Fredrickson believes holds the power we need to feel invested in others, socially strong and physically healthy and happy. "Love is the seed of life," says Fredrickson. For a look at Fredrickson's newest research, check out her publications page at UNC or my HuffPost blog post on Fredrickson's talk at the second World Congress on Positive Psychology on the Huffington Post.

Love is the antidote to fear and stress

Stress is not the enemy. It's how we react to it that gets us into trouble. At the recent Harvard Medical School conference on coaching in leadership and healthcare, Eva Selhub, M.D., author of The Love Response®, presented her cutting-edge work on chronic, over-the-top stress reactions. The "fight or flight" response still has its place, says Selhub, but our health suffers when stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are triggered on a regular basis. While genetics is a factor, Selhub's research shows the mind/body response to fear and stress can be reversed.

Selhub suggests a plan of attack that includes three steps:

1) Redirect your focus from worries or fear to the present moment. Consider:

  • Mindful and calming activities like taking a bath or going for a walk

  • Exercise

  • Taking deep breaths

  • Meditation

2) Visualize images of loving, happy memories. This will induce a relaxation response and help signal the brain to release the hormone oxytocin, known to reduce anxiety and increase feelings of contentment.

Begin by closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths and in as much detail as you can imagine one of the following:

  • The best hug you ever got

  • The first time you saw or held a baby

  • A scene from a movie that always leads to happy tears

  • The warm sun on sparkling water, a beautiful sunset or any vision that always makes you feel loved and happy

As you exhale, feel the warmth and love surrounding you and the stress hormones retreating.

3) Reinforce self-compassion. Selhub led our group in a meditation to counteract fear by encouraging us to repeat the following words during a guided meditation. The secret is to practice regularly:

  • I am enough

  • I have enough

  • I have what it takes -- come what may

  • I am a miracle

The major health benefits, says Selhub, include a stronger immune system, improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, better metabolism and less gastrointestinal distress.

Love builds happiness and resilience

The benefits of living in a more relaxed, open state extends way beyond the physical. Selhub describes this as our capacity to create a memory of positive rewards. "We become more social, attractive to others, self-confident and hopeful" says Selhub. Fredrickson agrees that building a reservoir of positive emotions, including "love," can lead to an "upward spiral" and help us to rebound from setbacks more easily. Check out the Love Response and Postitivity Radio websites for more specifics.

Love is character strength

Positive psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania have been devoted to studying the science behind why people and cultures thrive. A free questionnaire known as the "VIA Survey of Character Strengths," which can be found here online (along with several others) and now newly available at the VIA Me! (a more user-friendly site, but a personalized report costs $10.00), has categorized the top 24 character strengths and virtues. Love, along with hope, zest, gratitude and curiosity are the top five strengths consistently correlated with life satisfaction.

Understanding your strengths is an illuminating lens. It helps to know who you are at your best and what kinds of situations will suit your style. As a professional coach, recognizing the science behind working with emotions and virtues such as love is a valuable goal-setting tool I like to use on a regular basis. It's also important to look beyond the lab at what's happening in real life. In my opinion, the playing field is where many of the greatest lessons are both felt and learned for a lifetime. Putting your heart on the line as a coach or a player and expressing love is one that extends way beyond a simple valentine.

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