Most people would agree that love has been discussed more than any other topic in human history. Ancient philosophers pondered it. Most religious texts address it. Poets and musicians alike find it to be an endless source of inspiration. Some television stations even dedicate programming to it.

It begs the question of whether this love an inherent part of the human condition—a necessary part of our well-being, if not survival. If so, what is it, and how can we foster it?

What is love?

Despite the efforts of those mentioned above, the answer to this question remains somewhat elusive.

This can partially be attributed to society’s ubiquitous usage of the word. For example, can you truly love going to the beach? The hometown baseball team? Your new home? A particular flavor of coffee? These can all bring us happiness, so, in this general sense, love is the warm feeling or passion for things that make us happy.

But the primary form of love—the be-all and end-all of so many movies, shows, books, and sonnets—may be better understood through a scientific lens.

For example, studies have clearly shown that newborns, more than anyone, need love almost as much as food and sleep. In addition, science can explain how being in love affects us chemically. Our brain’s dopamine levels (which help regulate pleasure) and cortisol levels (which affect stress) rise, while our serotonin (mood) levels fall, especially in the honeymoon phase of love. Or, to put it in romantic terms, love can make us feel giddy, make our hearts race and our palms sweat, and make us fawn over our object of affection. Perhaps the classic heart shape that symbolizes love should be replaced by a brain.

Speaking of which, from a psychological perspective, Robert J. Sternberg’s popular Triangular Theory of Love posits that love has three primary components: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. These are most often experienced as loving relationships, romantic/physical attraction, and being in love and maintaining it, respectively.

In addition, Dr. Sternberg identifies eight different combinations of the three. Take the intimacy level, for example. By itself, it results in liking; that’s how you become friends with someone. However, a combination of intimacy and passion, without the commitment component, is defined as romantic love. In contrast, combining only intimacy and decision/commitment results in companionate love, such as familial love (and, arguably, our love of pets). When you combine all three? That’s what Dr. Sternberg calls consummate love—or as we’d likely call it, true love.

Can love last?

Most of us are enamored with the idea of finding a soul mate. Interestingly, our pull to have lifetime partners is a relatively rare one when compared with other mammals—out of thousands of mammalian species, only around 3 to 5 percent are monogamous. It seems to be a truly human quality.

Although some might disagree, science backs the idea that long-term love is achievable. For example, research indicates that the dopamine centers of the brain of those in long-term relationships can react similarly to how they did when they first start dating.

The labor of love

However, keeping love alive doesn’t usually just happen. It takes prioritization, commitment, and work. Here are just a few ways you can foster it.

Minimize the obstacles.

You’ve probably heard of the usual grim realities: life today is too hectic and too demanding, and we spend too much time working. And when we do have free time, we spend too much of it in front of screens. How much time is left to work on bettering your loving relationships? Commit time every day, even if it’s just thirty minutes watching TV together, to your loved one. It matters.

Shatter common illusions.

  • “Reality” TV. Throughout the world, and especially in Western culture, we certainly have a long-time idealized take on love, mostly because of television shows, movies, and music. It’s OK to watch over-romanticized movies and TV shows, of course—as long as you take to heart that their portrayals are the exception, not the rule.
  • The seven-year itch. Similarly, this concept was popularized by a movie, and because of that, many people believe it to be true. However, there’s no evidence that year seven is when relationships magically start to fade.
  • An empty cupboard. After being with somebody for a long time, it can seem like there’s nothing left to learn about your partner. However, no matter where or when you are in life, there are endless ways to stoke the fires of curiosity.

Prioritize the person.

Do you know the primary reason people love babies and puppies? Sure, they’re cute and they give a sense of meaning because they need us. But they’re also as perfect as possible in terms of unconditional love: they frequently show they care about you and expect nothing in return.

In most other relationships, though, the opposite is true: expectations often outpace reality. Instead, you should focus on the person, not the person you perceive or wish for. This will help you accept and love that person despite, or perhaps even because of, his or her imperfections.

Nurture the most important love of all.

Frankly, it all starts with you. Simply put, you first have to truly love and accept yourself if you realistically expect others to do the same. If you don’t, the odds are that it will reflect onto others in your relationships—including friends, family members, and romantic partners—and negative consequences will follow. Instead, focus on your best qualities, and allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner about your self-doubts and weaknesses.

Perhaps the classic song “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” sums up this multifaceted feeling the best. Whether you experience the comforting and stabilizing love of family and friends, the unconditional love of children and pets, or the passion of romantic and long-term love, one fact is certain—life is just better when it’s filled with love.