We say it before we end a phone call. We type it in our texts. It's the last words we speak before we say good night. "I love you" is possibly the most popular three-word phrase in the world, spoken millions of times every day.
"I love you" translates intimacy between ourselves and others, but the expression is so common that it can lack the meaning it's intended. When saying and hearing it becomes automatic and expected, its power becomes dulled in our brain's limbic system, where we process love.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a "hierarchy of needs" that ranks what humans are motivated to achieve, with love cited as a basic need after safety, food and shelter. A human's need for love carries a weight within us that isn't always an emotion. It can be an overall warmth, a deep sense of belonging, an underlying connectedness or confirmation of adoration between people.
Still how do we arrive at a loving state?
Researchers from Penn State University found that feeling loved isn't just about saying or hearing "I love you." Feeling loved is often conveyed through small gestures. According to a recent study, behavioral expressions trump verbal ones when it comes to transmitting that loving feeling. "It is possible for people to feel loved in simple, everyday scenarios," explained the study's lead researcher, Zita Oravecz. "It doesn't have to be over-the-top gestures."
Here are easy and effective ways to communicate "I love you."
Give a small, personalized gift
Gifts are common enough that they can become as generic an exchange as "I love you" -- but not if you consider the receiver and tailor it to them. A sense of humor helps, too.
Author Sue Shapiro suggests, "Instead of flowers or candy (which don't do anything for me), my husband will bring me a ream of paper and a little bottle of Wite-Out when he knows I have a deadline. True love! And I feel like someone actually knows me."
Make someone's favorite dessert "just because," or give a freezable dinner to a busy friend. One study found evidence that offering food is seen as a form of affection and sharing food an indicator of love. Take that a step further, and you could say cooking for others can be viewed as a nurturing, altruistic act that comes with the benefit of increased happiness, according to one study.
Making food as way to express love, explained dating expert and author James Michael Sama, "brings people together in gatherings and celebrations, and can be used as a bonding experience with cooking and sharing." This combination of doing an altruistic, creative act while fulfilling someone's need to eat is mutually good for well being and feeling loved.
Cozy up. Researchers recruited nearly 500 Americans to answer a questionnaire featuring 60 common interactions and explain whether those activities give them feelings of love. "A child snuggling up to you" received 97% consensus on a hypothetical action that would make them feel loved. Besides boosting loving feelings, cuddling lowers stress and boosts immunity, according to one study.
Call or write a note out of the blue
We often reach out to wish someone a happy birthday, arrange plans or ask for help. Try contacting someone to ask how they are or simply to chat. Doing so has the potential to produce tenderness. More than 90% of that questionnaire's participants agreed that "someone calling to check in out of the blue" made them feel loved.
Take a task off their 'to do' list
Put away the dishes from the dishwasher. Fold the laundry without being asked. Pick up milk from the store. Relieving someone's burden, even a minor one, demonstrates care.
"Try to pinpoint the small things someone does for you that warms your heart," said Saeideh Heshmati, a co-author of the Penn State study and a postdoctoral research scholar there. "Once you find those little things, try to savor them and preserve that feeling. As you're aware, you're more prone to perceive them as love."
Feeling loved is often conveyed through small gestures, experts say
Cooking for others can be viewed as a nurturing act that comes with the benefit of increased happiness
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