For some, February is synonymous with pricey prix fixe Valentine’s Day dinners, elaborate floral bouquets, and other grand, romantic gestures. But Cupid’s holiday isn’t the only reason for observing matters of the heart this month.
February is also officially American Heart Month, which is aimed at raising awareness and supporting a heart-healthy lifestyle. With heart disease responsible for one in every four deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising red flags and providing resources on heart health is essential. But don’t discount the power of love just yet.
“The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic,” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, research which spanned almost 80 years. “People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
Amplifying love in your life through a deep and meaningful relationship can contribute to a healthy heart and longer life.
4 Health Benefits of Love
Although you might cite wealth, a successful career, or fame and notoriety as hallmarks of a good life, the latest data from the Harvard study found that satisfaction in relationships was the greatest predictor of study participants’ health later in life.
Here are just a few positive effects of relationships you should know.
1. Love Helps You Cope With Physical Pain
Saying that “love heals all things” might be a stretch, but love can alter how we process physical pain.
The study found that participants in their 80s who had close, positive relationships reported steady levels of happiness even on days they experienced physical pain. Participants who lacked happy relationships, however, reported increased emotional pain on days they experienced physical pain.
The support of loved ones, whether a significant other, friend, or close family member help provide the emotional protection your body needs during trauma.
2. Love Helps Your Mind Stay Sharp
Another positive effect of good relationships is its ability to slow down mental decline over time.
“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains,” said Waldinger. “The people who are in relationships, where they really feel like they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper, longer.”
It’s important to note that “good” relationships here don’t mean perfect relationships. But despite day-to-day arguments and disagreements, as long as your relationship is one that you highly value and feel you can rely on in tough times, your memory will likely stay sharper longer, compared to those who don’t have happy relationships in their lives.
3. Love Strengthens Your Overall Well-Being
Love also has positive effects on your general health. Meaningful touch, like intimacy with a partner or even non-sexual touch among friends, can lower blood pressure and increase oxytocin which plays a role in social bonding.
“We can track the effect [of love] on our immune system, on our nervous system, and on our mood,” said Kevon Owen, clinical psychotherapist and relationship expert. “Physical touch and intimacy has been shown to improve the way our body releases stress and fights off illness. We see people in trauma and anxiety improve almost completely through being hugged or held. Some studies show brain scans of individuals in sick beds lighting up in the same areas as happiness when holding the hand of a loved one.”
The power of touch from a positive relationship and its effect on your body is significant, in some cases resulting in faster recovery during times of illness and leading to a more satisfied life.
4. Love Propels Your Career
When you feel loved at home and in your social circle, the health benefits of love have a ripple effect into your work life.
“A person who feels loved and [has] a positive relationship has a motive and a drive to endure and to achieve,” said Owen. “They have a solid ground of coming from a place of security and confidence that overflows into all aspects including professional areas of life.”
This level of personal wellness is why Owen suggests that more companies are offering Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits that provide mental health and therapeutic resources.
“[Companies] know that employees with healthy family and relational life thrive,” said Owen.
Does Love Make You Live Longer?
Yes, studies suggest that love is the biggest indicator for living a fulfilling, happy — and ultimately, longer — life. It makes your heart melt, doesn’t it? But keep in mind the health benefits of being in a relationship isn’t just a numbers game.
“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” said Waldinger. “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”
So unglue your hands from your mobile device and take a break from your fifth Netflix marathon of the week. Instead, reach out to a friend who you haven’t spoken to a while and schedule a catch-up brunch, or learn a new hobby with your spouse, because the key to living a longer life is nurturing the relationships that bring you the most joy.