By Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD
Love not only helps us live more happily but also helps us live longer. Happy marriages are associated with better health, while tension in relationships increases stress and the risk of illness. An analysis of studies involving hundreds of thousands of people suggests that maintaining good social relationships is associated with lower mortality. Conversely, social isolation ranks among the most significant physical and lifestyle risk factors for mortality, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cigarette smoking.
This association does not prove causality: we can’t tell whether the boost to longevity comes from the relationship itself or from other factors associated with a relationship. For example, it is conceivable that being married contributes to better health by encouraging better diet or hygiene. It is also possible that healthier people or those with fewer unhealthy habits, such as drug or alcohol abuse, may be more likely to get married in the first place, thus skewing the analysis. Yet studies that controlled for these factors have shown similar results for lower mortality in happily married people.
On the other hand, unhappiness is associated with many types of organ dysfunction and disease. Even brief angry outbursts have now been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks. One study of immunity among socially isolated people showed that they had poorer immune function and greater stress levels than those with many social contacts.
In the extreme case, stress can lead to health crises. We have recently learned that acute emotional stress can lead to actual heart failure—a serious illness known as broken heart syndrome, which is now regularly identified in medical centers around the world. While the exact mechanisms leading to weakening of the heart muscle remain unclear, we know that high levels of certain stress hormones, which are released in response to a devastating breakup or personal loss, or extreme fear or anxiety, may trigger the syndrome. Fortunately, many patients recover after a few weeks.
A large body of evidence suggests that love has a direct effect on a vast array of biological functions. A loving relationship fosters the release of the hormone oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Oxytocin has a variety of purposes and is probably best known for its release after childbirth to foster bonding between mother and baby. Oxytocin is also implicated in attachment during relationships and many other human interactions. It has anti-depressive effects that are being investigated for clinical use. Of particular interest is the discovery that oxytocin may decrease the levels of the hormone cortisol. Changes in cortisol levels are associated with sleep deprivation and physical and emotional stress, and cortisol has a well-known weakening effect on our immune system. It may, therefore, not be surprising that happy relationships are associated with lower rates of sickness.
Good emotional health leads to good physical health. And just as good physical health requires us to exercise, acquiring good emotional health also requires training. Emotional health “workouts” may include regular, conscious efforts to focus on love and relationships while deemphasizing material or career goals. As with physical exercise, it may take months or years of devoted practice to get into good emotional shape. This is because less healthy thinking patterns acquired early in life tend to be reinforced over years or even decades, making them difficult to reverse.
At any given moment we have the choice of allowing our thoughts and actions to be moved by impulses such as anger, frustration, jealousy and boredom, or overcoming these impulses and acting out of love. If we choose love, we immediately feel a sensation of calm and peace, and things seem different. It works instantly and predictably. It is ironic that our society yearns for instant gratification and pursues various strategies for achieving instant wealth and fame—which essentially never work—while the immediate reward of a happy mind is instantly available to everybody but often not recognized.
Life is about balance. While we cannot control our genes or all the things that happen to us, we can help ourselves a lot by nurturing both our mind and our body and by placing a stronger emphasis on love. This undertaking requires focus and devotion, but the results are impressive. Devoting time to the art of love is a smart investment. Not only do we directly foster our own happiness, but we also support our health and chances of a longer, better life.
Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, is the author of The Forgotten Art of Love. He is a professor at Johns Hopkins University with doctoral degrees in medicine and philosophy as well as a Master’s Degree in public health. As a cardiologist and a scientist, Dr. Zadeh knows, from first-hand experience, about the close relationship between heart disease and the state of the mind. Visit .
Excerpted from the book The Forgotten Art of Love: What Love Means and Why It Matters. Copyright ©2017 by Armin A. Zadeh. Printed with permission from New World Library, www.newworldlibrary.com.