Sure, we all tear up watching romantic movies. But in real life, romance doesn't seem to matter that much. In fact, it's the small, non-romantic acts of kindness and compassion that make us feel most loved. This is the case for most Americans, at least.
When it comes to that warm and fuzzy feeling, it's the small, non-romantic, everyday gestures that count the most. It also seems that our pets can fill the void in our hearts just fine. These are just two of many revelations of a new study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
The research was led by Saeideh Heshmati — a postdoctoral scholar in the College of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University in State College — and it was no easy task.
Almost 500 Americans were asked questions about 60 different scenarios, and their answers were fed into a complex mathematical model that sorted and measured the information.
What made the researchers embark on this love quest? "Whether we feel loved or not," Heshmati says, "plays an important role in how we feel from day to day."
She adds, "We were curious about whether the majority of Americans could agree [on] what makes people feel loved on a daily basis, or if it was a more personal thing."
Actions matter more than words
The researchers recruited 495 Americans who were 50 years old, on average, and they asked them to give their opinion on 60 different scenarios "where love might be felt." These scenarios were quite varied: they were positive, neutral, or negative, and involved pets, lovers, and nature.
For example, participants were asked to say if they thought that "most people would feel loved" when "someone wants to know where they are at all times," when they spend time with their friends, when they come home and their pet greets them, or when the sun is shining.
Since the team was interested in cultural consensus, Heshmati and colleagues analyzed the data using a so-called extended Condorcet model, which is basically a fancy term for an even fancier statistical tool used to account for bias and other things that may influence the results.
What they found was this: when it comes to feeling loved — and, by extension, showing love — most people would agree that it's more much more important to walk the walk than just talk the talk.
"We found that behavioral actions — rather than purely verbal expressions — triggered more consensus as indicators of love," explains Heshmati.
"For example," she continues, "more people agreed that a child snuggling with them was more loving than someone simply saying, 'I love you.'"
In fact, the two highest-ranking scenarios that made participants "feel the love" were someone showing them compassion when they're going through a tough time, and a child snuggling up to them.
In third place was a pet being happy to see them, and actually being told "I love you" came in next, at number four. So, basically, a happy cat rolling on its back when you come home is more important than your boyfriend saying "I love you."
Heshmati says, "You might think [that these scenarios] would score on the same level, but people were more in agreement about loving actions, where there's more authenticity perhaps, instead of a person just saying something."
"Our results show that people do agree, and the top scenarios that came back weren't necessarily romantic. So it is possible for people to feel loved in simple, everyday scenarios. It doesn't have to be over-the-top gestures."
Cultural differences may play a role
Americans also seem to be quite unanimous when it comes to what doesn't make them feel loved. "In American culture," Heshmati says, "it seems that controlling or possessive behaviors are the ones people do not feel loved by."
Someone wanting to know where you are at all times, for example, was ranked among some of the least loving behaviors.
But Heshmati explains that "[t]his could be a cultural difference. There's research showing that in more communal societies, these types of controlling behaviors may be seen as affection."
In China, for instance, if a mother "inhibits" a child's behavior — by not letting them play with new kids or fun toys, for example — people tend to see that as warm and affectionate, whereas in the Western world, the same attitude is seen as harsh, punitive, or unloving.
But although we may seem to have reached a consensus as a culture, individual differences still matter.
"It may not be wise to go into a relationship assuming that both of you know the same things about feeling loved or that all of the same things will make you feel loved," Heshmati says.
"[It's] important to communicate these things to each other, which can assist in being more in tune with each other and feeling loved in the relationship."