Love is one of those emotions that’s difficult to define and one that falls into many categories. We can say we love our parents, our children, our dog, our friends, our job, and our car. Obviously the degree of affection, attention, chemistry, and feeling we assign to each is not the same, but we tend to use the same word, at times a bit too freely. So when it comes right down to it, what is this thing called love and what is it good for?
One thing researchers are coming to agree on is that love is good for our health.
There are some cool things happening behind the scenes at the cellular level, both during short-term and long-term love relationships.
For example, it’s been shown that levels of a certain love hormone (oxytocin; more on that later) are high during the first six months of new romantic partnerships when compared with unattached singles. This is just one example of the internal biological processes that are occurring between loving couples. But how do those processes translate into health benefits?
Health benefits of love
According to Melissa Vallas, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in California, “Loving and stable relationships can help to improve a person’s ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression.” One reason for this benefit is the presence of oxytocin, a hormone that is released when we touch people we love or care about, when we have sex, or even when we are getting together with friends.
The more we engage in loving relationships and connections, the more oxytocin we accumulate. Oxytocin can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, reduce pain, increase energy, and decrease stress in your life.
Some of the best health benefits of love appear to be associated with couples who are going the distance. Harry Reis, PhD, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Human Relationships, noted “there’s no evidence that the intense, passionate stage of a new romance is beneficial to health,” but individuals in “satisfying, long-term relationships fare better on a whole variety of health measures.”
In addition to a reduction in stress, depression, and anxiety, long-term loving relationships (especially marriage, but also friendships) are also associated with the following health benefits:
Lower blood pressure. If you have a happy, loving marriage, there’s a good chance your blood pressure is healthy, according to a study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Single individuals who had a strong social network also did well but came in second, while unhappily married people showed the worst blood pressure.
Pain control. Brain scans don’t lie. In a study from Stony Brook University in New York, researchers studied brain scans of people who said they were still madly in love with their partners even after an average of 21 years of marriage. The experts discovered two interesting findings. One, these couples showed activation of brain sites associated with pain relief and pleasure; and two they displayed significantly less anxiety and intrusive thinking than individuals newly in love.
Strong immune system. Being in love-and other positive emotions-can boost your immune system. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that individuals who portray positive emotions are less likely to contract the flu and common cold than are negative, depressed, or hostile people. Love may also help heal wounds faster, as demonstrated by married couples given blister wounds. Those who had a loving relationship had higher oxytocin levels and also healed nearly twice as fast as those who demonstrated hostility toward each other.
Lower risk of heart problems. Again, the scientific evidence looked at married folks, and this time they found that being married was linked to lower heart risks. The study evaluated more than 3.5 million adults and discovered that heart problems were less likely for spouses than for divorced, single, or widowed individuals. Although love in particular was not examined in this study, the study’s lead investigator, Carlos L. Alviar, MD, noted that “Of course, it’s true that not all marriages are created equal, but we would expect the size of this study population to account for variations in good and bad marriages.”
Longer life. If you want to live longer, stay in love! Although most of the research has focused on married couples, unmarried partners in loving long-term relationships likely can experience the same benefit. According to Dr. Reis, the reasons why research shows that married people tend to live longer than their unmarried or never married counterparts goes beyond the financial benefits and practical support marriage can provide. He believes the longer life benefit comes from couples feeling connected and loved, whereas “Loneliness is associated with all-cause mortality-dying for any reason.” And based on research from Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, committing to a life partner can add up to 3 years to your life.
More joyful life. It seems a no-brainer that one of the big benefits of love is joy. However, researchers are always trying to come up with scientific proof of things that seem obvious, so here is one example of such an effort. In a study appearing in the Journal of Family Psychology, the authors found that one of the most impactful effects of love is joy, and that joy rises from having healthy, loving family and friend relationships rather than income level.
American College of Cardiology. Marriage linked to lower heart risks in study of 3.5+ million adults. 2014 Mar 28 news release
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