Love is crucial to your good health
Imagine getting a prescription that reads: “100 milligrams of love, twice daily, unlimited renewals.” Caring, of course, can’t be put in a capsule, but it can heal as powerfully as medicine. “Love is a basic human need,” says Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health. “When we don’t get it, we pay a price in how long we live and how likely we are to get sick.”
We may also pay a price if we don’t give love. According to Stephen Post Ph.D. professor of bioethics and religion Ohio’s Case Western University, research shows that loving acts neutralize the kind of negative emotions that adversely affect immune, endocrine and cardiovascular function. Studies published over the past five years show that loving and helping others has health benefits, says Post. There may even be a physiological response or “helper’s high” that makes people feel stronger and more energetic and counters some of the harmful effects of stress.
But beyond our need to get and give it, what is love? How do we define something as essential and invisible as air? Researchers often look at human connection as the cardinal signal of love.
Fifty years ago at the University of Wisconsin, psychologist Harry Harlow believed that affection and connection were the foundations of life. In a landmark experiment, Harlow took baby monkeys from their real mothers, giving them wire “moms” devised to deliver milk. But the youngsters would only cuddle when their surrogates were covered in a furry cloth. These monkeys thrived, while those with the bare-wire models didn’t. The results proved Harlow’s theory that attachment to another is as crucial a drive as thirst, hunger and sex.
In the ensuing decades, scientists have taken the study of love in new directions, examining everything from the impact of a mother’s smile on her baby to the healing power of hugs. An interesting discovery has been how many kinds of connections count. Ties to friends, family, work, neighbors and community can all bolster health and happiness. One example: After hundreds of students at Carnegie Mellon University were exposed to a cold virus, those who had one to three types of social bonds were four times more likely to develop a cold than those with six or more types. Disruptions to connections also affect health, as shown by research in primate bonding, which remains a template for its human counterpart. Sally Mendoza, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, found that isolating one squirrel monkey from its group caused a sudden spike not only in that animal’s stress hormones, but in the stress hormones of its fellows as well.
Meanwhile, social support appears to prolong life. A Duke University study of 1,400 people with heart disease found that those with a spouse or confidant died at one-third the rate of those who felt isolated. And Dartmouth Medical School researchers noted that participation in church or civic activities extended the lives of open-heart surgery patients.
“Other studies have since confirmed that social isolation increases the risk of early death up to five times” Ornish says. “Connection is the foundation of health. You can be sure that if a drug or a new surgical technique came out that increased survival that much, every doctor in the country would be using it.”
A powerful shift is occurring in the understanding of love, declares Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and author of Love at Goon Parle: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. “The science of today puts kindness ahead of romance,” she says. “The field of psychology has shifted away from Freud and sexuality to an adult view of love as responsibility and caring. The message is very clear: Taking care of each other is the nature of love:’
Post couldn’t agree more. His Institute for Research on Unlimited Love awards grants to study altruism in action. “My hypothesis is that voluntary, generous, helping behavior enhances health, self-esteem and happiness” he says.
Giving love allows you to ascertain who you are. “I define love as the unsought-for discovery of self through giving,” Post says. He sees love as our indestructible core, an insight he confirmed when he began to work with Alzheimer’s sufferers. “People with cognitive deficits are incredibly sensitive to affection. Any person can respond profoundly to love.”
Post recalls one Alzheimer’s patient who handed him a twig with a big smile. “If love was wind, you’d have been blown off your chair by the love in his eyes” he says. “I learned that when he was a little boy he adored his father, and his morning chore was to bring in kindling for the fireplace.”
Extend and Connect
So how do we “self-medicate” with love? You can begin with a simple exercise in awareness: Choose a neutral person in your world, perhaps someone who sells you a morning coffee, and think of that person with compassion. “This practice awakens feelings of resonance and joy, which actually changes your biology [by releasing the chemical dopamine in the brain]” says Sally Severino, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico.
Article authored by Jill Neimark and originally printed in Natural Health Magazine, Oct. 2003