Love finds its way into our lives in many different ways: the love between friends, spouses, partners, relatives, and even love for our pets can be amazingly fulfilling.
But, did you know that love can actually improve your health? It’s true—research shows that love can help us on the journey to health and happiness. In fact, if you’re in a relationship, Valentine’s Day may be one of the healthiest days of the year — despite the champagne and chocolates.
That’s because love comes with some solid health benefits, according to a growing body of scientific research.
Most of the research in this area focuses on marriage, but many of the benefits extend to other close relationships, for example, with a partner, parent, or friend. The key is to “feel connected to other people, feel respected and valued by other people, and feel a sense of belonging.”
Here are nine ways love can improve your health and wellbeing:
#1- Love makes you happy
When you first fall in love, dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical, is especially active. “That is a mood intensifier, so people feel extremely positive and very appreciated,” Harry Reis, PhD, co-editor of the Encyclopaedia of Human Relationships says, hence that “walking on air” feeling you get with the blossoming of a new relationship.
Possible Love’s greatest benefit is joy, but research is just beginning to reveal how strong this link can be. A study in the Journal of Family Psychology shows happiness depends more on the quality of your family relationships than on your level of income. So, Love beats money in making us happier.
#2 - Fewer Doctor’s Visits
The Health and Human Services Department reviewed several studies on marriage and health. One of the report’s most significant findings is that married people have fewer visits to the Doctor and shorter than average hospital stays.
“Nobody quite knows why loving relationships are good for health,” Reis says. “The best logic for this is that human beings have been crafted by evolution to live in closely-knit social groups. When that is not happening, the biological systems get overwhelmed.”
Another theory is that people in good relationships take better care of themselves. A spouse may motivate you to keep up your oral hygiene, and a best friend or a dog could encourage you to exercise together. Over a period of time, these good, healthy habits lead to fewer illnesses.
#3 - Faster Healing
The power of a positive relationship may make flesh wounds heal faster. According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Researchers at Ohio State University Medical Centre gave married couples blister wounds. The wounds healed nearly twice as fast in spouses who interacted warmly compared with those who demonstrated a lot of hostility toward each other.
#4 - Reduces Stress
A hug from a loved one at the end of a stressful day can instantly make us feel better, and now research tells us why. Stress can negatively affect your hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure.
After the honeymoon phase subsides, all of that dopamine is combined with another brain chemical: oxytocin, or the bonding hormone. Oxytocin not only gives you “warm and fuzzy” feelings for your partner, but it can also be good for your health, Riess says.
“When people feel securely attached, their stress levels go down,” she says. “Just being in the presence of someone who greets us with positive regard and caring can actually lower those levels of cortisol and adrenaline and create greater homeostasis, which means that your neurochemicals are back in balance.”
And it’s not just non-verbal touching that can be a great stress buster; verbal expressions of affection (like saying “I love you”) and supportive affection (like listening to each other) are also associated with lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
#5 - Less Anxiety
When it comes to anxiety, a loving, stable relationship is superior to a new romance. Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of people in love. They compared passionate new couples with strongly connected long-term couples. Both groups showed activation in a part of the brain associated with intense love.
“It’s the dopamine-reward area, the same area that responds to cocaine or winning a lot of money,” says Arthur Aron, PhD, one of the study’s authors. But there were striking differences between the two groups in other parts of the brain. In long-term relationships, “you also have activation in the areas associated with bonding ... and less activation in the area that produces anxiety.”
#6 - Boosts Immune Health
Kissing benefits your immune system, and this is related to your microbiome. Scientists studied 21 couples to identify how intimate kissing affected their oral microbiota. It turns out that each 10-second kiss corresponded to a transfer of 80 million bacteria between partners—bacteria that can help boost immune function! And interestingly, couples who engaged in intimate kissing nine or more times a day had similar oral microbiomes, allowing them to fight off similar harmful microbes they may encounter or transfer between each other.
We have discussed the power of loving relationships to reduce stress and anxiety - another factor that may give the immune system a boost. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who exhibit positive emotions are less likely to get sick after exposure to cold or flu viruses. The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, compared people who were happy and calm with those who appeared anxious, hostile, or depressed.
#7 - Relieves Pain
Feelings of love can influence your brain in such a way that you experience reduced sensitivity to pain, much like opioid pain relievers that trigger your brain’s reward centres. In one study of 15 college students in the first nine months of a romantic relationship, looking at a photo of their girlfriend or boyfriend significantly reduced self-reported thermal (heat-induced) pain in comparison to looking at a photo of a colleague or using distraction techniques.
In another similar study, 25 women in long-term relationships experienced more pain reduction from holding their partner’s hand and from looking at their partner’s photo than from holding a stranger’s hand, holding an object, or viewing photos of an object.
A small study published in Psychological Science adds to the theory. Researchers subjected 16 married women to the threat of an electric shock. When the women were holding their husband’s hand, they showed less response in the brain areas associated with stress. The happier the marriage, the greater the effect.
#8 - Blood Pressure
A happy marriage is good for your blood pressure too. That’s the conclusion of a study in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine. Researchers found happily married people had the best blood pressure, followed by singles. Unhappily married participants ranked last.
Reis says this study illustrates a vital aspect of the way marriage affects health. “It’s marital quality and not the fact of marriage that makes a difference,” he tells us. This supports the idea that other positive relationships can have similar benefits. In fact, singles with a strong social network also did well in the blood pressure study, though not as well as happily married people.
#9 - Extends Your Life
A growing body of research indicates that married people live longer. One of the largest studies examines the effect of marriage on mortality during an eight-year period in the 1990s. Using data from the National Health Interview Survey, researchers found that people who had never been married were 58% more likely to die than married people.
Aron tells us marriage contributes to longer life mostly through “mutual practical support, financial benefits, and children who provide support.”
But Reis sees an emotional explanation. Marriage protects against death by warding off feelings of isolation. “Loneliness is associated with all-cause mortality -- dying for any reason,” he says. In other words, married people live longer because they feel loved and connected.
But there’s also good news for the unattached. In 2010, a review of 148 studies found that longevity benefits were linked to all close social relationships, not just romantic ones — meaning your friends and family are good for your health, too.
If your social network doesn’t feel up to par, don’t worry: just meditating on love can slow down the ageing process. Researchers discovered that people who practised Loving-Kindness Meditation—which focuses on kindness and warmth towards others—had longer telomeres, the segments of DNA that control ageing.10 Shorter than average telomeres have been associated with accelerated ageing and a shorter lifespan, so the longer, the better!