Valentine’s Day has a wonderful place in my heart. It’s a spectacular celebration of love/consumerism, and is the one day a year when you can sit down, write a poem, and not get laughed at for doing it*. It’s also one of the best excuses for buying chocolate that you can find, just behind “I had a bad day at work” but well in front of “damn I really want chocolate today”. It may be silly, but I’m very fond of Valentine’s.
Even if it was originally a pagan celebration that may have included executions and whipping.
Unfortunately, much like every big day on our calendar, Valentine’s comes with its own brand of mythology. Love is king, but how to get there is a question that everyone seems to want to answer differently.
Most of these myths are based on flimsy evidence. It turns out that love is more complicated than a box of chocolates.
But honestly, I think we all knew that already.
Oxytocin Is Fiendishly Complicated
Every year, without fail, Valentine’s Day brings out the oxytocin crowd. Whether it’s a story about rodents huddling together to generate warmth — and love — or a slew of media attention on a small study that found that partners who (board) game together, oxytocin together too.
Oxytocin is a hormone that helps to regulate human behaviour, and initial research into the chemical found that it could effect everything mother-child bonding to how willing we were to trust strangers. This led to oxytocin being dubbed the “hug hormone”, and the universal proclamation that more oxytocin meant more love.
Unfortunately, this was somewhat premature.
More recent research has failed to support the idea that oxytocin is primarily there to make us more social and loving. In reality, it seems that oxytocin does many things in the human body, and hugging strangers is just a side-effect of some of these processes. It seems more and more likely that the initial research only captured a fraction of the complexity of this hormone, making the endless stories of love nothing but a historical quirk rather than solid science.
Everything Is Chocolate
The other big myth that rolls around every Valentine’s is the idea that chocolate is the key to everyone’s heart. A brief look online reveals dozens of stories on chocolate in the week leading up to Valentine’s, all of them focused on the same idea.
Chocolate = “Science” = Love
If that seems a bit unrealistic to you — sugary treats are great, of course, but not really a replacement for devotion and care — then you’re almost certainly right.
We love chocolate health stories, because we all want to be told that this delicious, fat-and-sugar-filled treat is actually good for us. It would be a wonderful realization if we discovered that chocolate is not just a great way to put on kilos, but the key to love itself.
Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that this is true.
Most of these stories are based on very similar ideas. Chocolate has some chemicals in it that can cause hormonal reactions in the brain that make us happier and more likely to fall in love. Eat more chocolate to get more brain chemicals, and voila! Instant connection.
The reality is that most of these chemicals are found in quite small amounts in chocolate — often you have to eat kilos of the stuff to get an active dose — and even more importantly, brain chemistry is more complicated than that. Chocolate may spike serotonin, but that’s true of pretty much anything you enjoy. Happiness is also far more complicated than simply increasing serotonin. It’s unlikely that simply eating a bar of delicious brown goodness will do much for your love life.
Realistically, eating chocolate is a great way to enjoy yourself but that’s about it. It’s a delicious food, but the health and romantic benefits are suspect and almost certainly oversold.
I’m not here to give love advice. This is a health blog, and my romantic expertise is limited to a few years of dating and then the amazing woman who I danced with in a muddy field and married 6 years later.
That being said, I think the best thing to do on Valentine’s Day is spend it doing whatever makes you happy. Don’t worry about oxytocin and serotonin, because honestly your brain is a massively complex minefield of chemicals that we barely understand anyway.
I’ll be spending Valentine’s reciting terrible poetry to my wife and using it as an excuse to buy flowers, because flowers are pretty. We might order pizza.
Romance is what you make of it. So, in my opinion, is love. Do whatever you want, and remember that chocolate is going to be on sale for the next seven days so there’s really no point in buying it today anyway.
And have a great Valentine’s Day. I’m sure you’ve earned it.
*Note — technically this is not true for poets, who can spend up to a week writing poetry before getting laughed at