The formation of DNA loops is a ubiquitous theme in biological processes, including DNA replication, recombination and repair, and gene regulation. These loops are mediated by proteins bound at specific sites along the contour of a single DNA molecule, in some cases many thousands of base pairs apart. Loop formation incurs a thermodynamic cost that is a sensitive function of the length of looped DNA as well as the geometry and elastic properties of the DNA-bound protein. The free energy of DNA looping is logarithmically related to a generalization of the Jacobson-Stockmayer factor for DNA cyclization, termed the J factor. In the present article, we review the thermodynamic origins of this quantity, discuss how it is measured experimentally and connect the macroscopic interpretation of the J factor with a statistical-mechanical description of DNA looping and cyclization.