Valentine’s Day is around the corner and if we aren’t celebrating romantic love in our life, we’re at least celebrating our love of chocolate! This brings up some interesting facts about the way we use the word – and how we experience – “love.”

Loving someone or something in the sense of a general desire, the way we love chocolate, may make us more likely to seek instant gratification and act impulsively. But with experience, we begin to realize that stuffing ourselves with sweets is not the same as nourishment and being “in love” is not the same as deep and abiding affection.

The love we feel when we find “the one” is likely to be somewhat different. Rather than an immediate burst of physical/romantic desire, this deep and meaningful love might actually begin as the love of true friends. Friends are the family we choose, the people who share our interests and values, the ones who we truly appreciate and admire for themselves and not for any material benefit they bring us. When the steady embers of friendship between potential partners intensifies, they may be lucky enough to find the person who knows them best and the love of their life are one and the same.

Usually, the first people we love in this life are our parents and especially in early life, our mother. Instinctively, our adorable baby selves know on whose good will our lives depend. Luckily, nature fills our moms with the hormone oxytocin which gives mother-love a biological jump start. In most cases, when Mom holds her baby in her arms for the first time, a bond like no other is formed. We can’t choose our mother, father or siblings and being born into the same family doesn’t guarantee harmony. But the natural love between parent and child can sustain us through the many stresses and strains of growing up.

There are some in our world who feel – and I would say “achieve” or “graduate to” – a form of love that is based neither on personal desire, personal friendship, personal benefit, nor family bonds. This category of love is known as “agape” in Greek, “charity” or “unconditional” love in English. It is by its very nature constant, regardless of outer or changing circumstances. This love has no ulterior motive, either conscious or unconscious, no anticipated material or emotional reward. Yet the gratification that comes from the unselfish service this love inspires can be significant.

Science confirms that those who serve as volunteers experience an upliftment known as “the Happiness Effect”: a release of dopamine that produces a natural “high.” David J. Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University explains it simply: “Your brain’s pleasure circuits are activated by acts of charity.” When the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness in a large group of American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.

Valentine’s Day is a reminder of the importance of love in our lives. When we give or receive that heart-shaped box of chocolates, by all means let’s ask our dear ones – and answer the question – “How Do I Love Thee?” Then let’s go one step further and ask ourselves, “How Do I Love?” Have I tasted and appreciated all the different forms and flavors of love? If not, there may be a sweet chapter of life still to be opened and savored.

Alexandra Piacenza is a 10-year resident of Prescott, retired from a career in technical writing and strategic planning. Your comments are welcome at apiacenza@cableone.net.