It’s February, that time of the year when love is in the air – and everywhere else. Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, black or white, strong or weak – your heart flutters much the same way when in love. The magic of love is all-pervasive and it cuts across age groups, economic strata, cultural divides and even continents.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines love as “a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness.”
Figuratively, love has always been associated with hearts and heartbreaks. But increasingly, this association is turning out to be literal. Take, for example, studies that prove that people who love and are loved are at a much lower risk of developing cardiac problems.
In fact, love may not seem to have much to do with our health, but the truth is that love is good for health. Study after study has proved that lack of love in our life is detrimental not only to our emotional health but also adversely affects our physical wellbeing. These studies don’t discuss romantic love only, but love in the context of general social support – a web of social relationships that include family, friends, associates and even pets.
The therapeutic potential of love is so immense that top scientists and medical professionals are researching ways to channel its powers to promote good health, longevity, and a stress-free life. Here are some tangible health benefits of love.
Dr Dean Ornish’s book Love and Survival is based on a simple but powerful idea: Our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships. He writes, “I have found that perhaps the most powerful intervention – and the most meaningful for me and for most of the people with whom I work, including staff and patients – is the healing power of love and intimacy, and the emotional and spiritual transformation that often result from these.”
Dr Ornish describes scientific evidence culled from his own research and from the studies of others that led him to believe that love and intimacy are among the most powerful factors in health and illness, even though these ideas are largely ignored by the medical profession. Upon reviewing the extensive scientific literature that supports these ideas, he describes the limitations of science to document and understand the full range of these implications – not only in our health and illness, but also in what often brings the most joy, value, and meaning to our lives.
Shield against diseases
Loving, and feeling loved, improves our body’s natural disease fighting competence. There is ample evidence that joyful relationships seem to produce just the right kind of chemicals and hormones that are needed to keep diseases at bay and also helps fight deadly diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
According to a study reported in a 2007 issue of Human Communication Research [issue 33, pp. 119-142], just putting your affectionate feelings down on paper can lower your cholesterol level. Similarly, the University of Iowa studied patients suffering from ovarian cancer. Those patients who had a strong sense of connection to others and satisfying relationships had more vigorous “natural killer” cell activity at the site of the tumour than those who didn’t have those social ties.
Studies conducted at the Institute for HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, confirm the health-improving and life-affirming effects of love on the human body. By studying the heart’s rhythms, researchers have discovered that when we feel love, or any positive emotion such as compassion, caring, or gratitude, the heart sends messages to the brain and secretes hormones that positively affect our health.
Love is also a great anti-anxiety medicine. Giving and receiving love reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Therefore, love can easily replace anti-anxiety pills – the highest selling drugs in the world today.
The best anti-aging medicine
The benefits of marriage have been carefully studied for decades. Several studies have proved that happily married individuals live longer than those who are single. For instance, The National Longitudinal Mortality Study, which has tracked more than a million subjects since 1979, shows that married people live longer, have fewer heart attacks and lower cancer rates, and even get pneumonia less frequently than singles.
A Harvard University study reports that when compared to their single counterparts, married women are 20 per cent less likely to die of heart disease, suicide and cirrhosis of the liver. Married men are even more fortunate in that they are two to three times less likely to die of such causes as compared to single men.
In yet another study of middle-aged women, those in happy, loving relationships displayed lower levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index when compared with the ones in unhappy marriages or those who were unmarried.
To understand how love promotes longevity, the Institute of HeartMath conducted a study on 30 people teaching them how to feel love in a conscious manner. A month later, the researchers measured the participating subjects’ levels of cortisol and DHEA [the anti-aging hormone] and found that the cortisol levels for the whole group had decreased 23 per cent while the group’s DHEA levels increased 100 per cent across the board.
It’s not just romantic love
By now you’re probably thinking that love is beneficial only to those in an intimate primary relationship. Take heart, even if you’re not in one. To reap the benefits of love, you need not have a lover or spouse. The love you feel can be for a friend, a co-worker, a parent, a child, or a sibling. In fact, it can even be for your pets. There are many studies that illustrate that patients with pets heal better after a major illness or surgery.
What is genuine love
Love is about nurturing and helping the loved one grow. When we feel genuine love towards another, we are concerned about the wellbeing of the loved one. In feeling so, we are willing to let go of our own wants and desires. When we love someone, we want to ensure that s/he becomes emotionally independent, self-reliant and possesses a healthy self-respect. We want our beloved to be able to think as an individual, and be strong enough to experience life’s ups and downs without getting bogged down. Sometimes, this requires difficult decisions on our part. Like when we know that someone we love is making a mistake, we allow him or her to do so, knowing fully well that making mistakes are part of growing up and overprotecting impedes the development of the person. [Excerpted from Love, Not Obsession, CW, June 2007]
Beyond interpersonal love
Altruistic love is beyond interpersonal love. Altruism is selfless concern for the welfare of others. Studies indicate that altruistic love blocks stress pathways and could positively affect health, through alleviating the effects of stress on the body. One study even suggests that people who have strong feelings of love for people in general are more likely to have strong romantic relationships.
But loving altruistically is not easy. Loving in this manner means loving everyone – even those we think who don’t deserve our love. Perhaps no one explained this better than Mahatma Gandhi when he advised, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
Jesus Christ too believed in the power of love. He declared, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [John 13:34, 35].
Mother Teresa, the apostle of compassion, believed that we can do no great things – only small things with great love. Once, a man named Pat was scheduled to do a radio interview with Mother Teresa in Phoenix. Before the interview, Pat asked her, “Is there anything I can do to help you with your cause? Could I help you raise money or give you some publicity? Mother Teresa replied, “No, Pat, there is nothing you need to do. My cause is not about publicity, and it is not about money. It is about something much higher than that.” Pat persisted, saying, “Isn’t there anything I can do for you? I feel so helpless.” To this Mother Teresa replied, “If you really want to do something, Pat, tomorrow morning get up at 4 am and go out on the streets of Phoenix. Find someone living there who believes that he is alone, and convince him that he is not. That is what you can do.”
Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi practised altruistic love. These individuals willingly subordinated their own lives for the greater good of humanity.
“We must be our own before we can be another’s.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Self-love is one form of love that never receives the attention that is due to it. Often, we confuse self-love with selfishness, which is erroneous thinking. Loving oneself is about being secure in the knowledge that you are worthy and have an important role to play in this world, and so do others. Those who love themselves genuinely have no desire to control anyone, because they are in control of themselves. To be able to fully love another, we must first love ourselves. This is because we can’t give away that which we don’t have. This means that to be able to enjoy the health benefits of love discussed above, we must start with learning to love ourselves.
Cultivate a loving consciousness
As we have seen, love – whether interpersonal, altruistic or even self-love — is good for the health of individuals, and the society. With so much evidence of love’s therapeutic powers, it’s perhaps time for doctors to start prescribing heavy doses of love alongside medicines, to quicken to process of healing.
But we don’t have to wait for a doctor’s prescription to enjoy the benefits of love. If love is good for physical, emotional and even social wellbeing, then we ought to consciously cultivate a loving consciousness. To do so, we must replace unhealthy thoughts that breed fear with loving thoughts.
According to Dr M Scot Peck, love is a voluntary choice. In the case of romantic love, the process of falling in love is involuntary. But everyone who falls in love falls out of love too. True love begins when we fall out of love — as a choice we make consciously. But loving consciously may require great efforts in the beginning. Here, it might help to understand that the opposite of love is not hatred, but fear. Every thought that weakens us is rooted in fear. Every thought that strengthens us stems out of love. Fear immobilises; love empowers. Fear creates conflicts; love promotes peace. Fear produces stress hormones; love produces happiness hormones. It’s in our interest and in the interest of all those we love and value that we replace fear with love as much as we can.