5 Unexpected Health Benefits Of Love & Friendship
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist, and board-certified life coach who has been working with couples and individuals for 35 years. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book 'Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love,' which has been translated into four languages.
Most of us are aware of the fact that if we love someone and are loved in return, our overall mental health is enhanced. Happiness is healthy, plain and simple. But the benefits of loving others only get more impressive as we examine them more closely.
Typically, individual well-being is assessed in terms of how well we're doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially. So let's take a look at how cultivating love and healthy relationships positively affects our health and well-being in these five areas:
1. Physical Health
Oxytocin, often called the "cuddle chemical," is a hormone released when we touch someone we care about. (It's also a factor in our connection with animal companions). Many of us know that this hormone increases with regular sexual intercourse, but we also have more of it in our systems when we are simply hanging out and having fun with friends.
So the more loving our connections, the more we amass this fabulous chemical, which is known to lower blood pressure, decrease stress and even boost immunity. Oxytocin reduces aches and pains, increases energy and enables us to experience life more often on the upbeat.
In fact, studies of psychology and aging show that loneliness increases blood pressure while the feeling of being "connected" lowers it. Studies also show how oxytocin overrides fear and reduces anxiety, which is why people do such great (and also "crazy") things in the name of love. Yet this chemical also improves our ability to recognize and respond appropriately to social cues and enhances all aspects of our well-being.
2. Intellectual Health
Intellectual health involves increased alertness, knowledge and common sense. Sure, we can cultivate our intellectual health with books, cultural events and other formal educational experiences. But we can also learn an incredible amount from the people we surround ourselves with.
A person who exhibits intellectual health is able to access their own gifts. From that awareness they can tap into their capacity for creativity. But it's also inarguable that our connections to others feed all of these self-discoveries. We learn through building our relationships and learning to improve our communication with others: opening up, listening to others open up, and simply having fun all sharpen our emotional intelligence.
Smart people make good decisions after some thoughtful consideration to decide how to move forward. Brainstorming often is an invaluable part of the process, whether on social media or through a tête-à-tête with a friend. Such connections increase our skill and capacity to think, respond, cultivate resilience and expand our minds.
3. Emotional Health
Studies have found that people who maintain close relationships with others are less likely to suffer from clinical depression. There's a reason, of course, which isn't often articulated: to maintain successful relationships, we will have already learned to manage our own emotions in healthy ways.
In fact, that kind of accountability to oneself is a prerequisite to successful connections. If we have already cultivated self-awareness, we most likely will also have developed social skills, including the ability to read social cues and show appreciation, care and concern for others. These skills establish the healthy ground on which relationships can thrive.
4. Spiritual Health
Let's face it: humans are imperfect and often annoying. We hurt one another's feelings. We fall into the traps of assumptions and unmet expectations. We let one another down.
But people who have successful long-term relationships practice generosity, forgiveness, patience and acceptance. Gratitude and appreciation are often said to be the most important qualities in a successful relationship, and there is much research to support this assertion. Studies suggest that communicating gratitude actually contributes to neuroplasticity — our brain's ability to make changes in response to our experiences. More generally, these are the benefits of practicing mindfulness. The more we practice being thankful, for ourselves, others and for life itself, the easier and more natural the feeling becomes.
5. Social Health
Successful relationships require us to develop particular skills: to be supportive without attempting to "fix" the problem, to communicate warmth without intruding on another's privacy and to manage conflict without damaging our connections. To understand how to traverse the slippery slope of good boundary management is essential to healthy connection. The reach of such skills extends to our relationships with other loved ones, and carries over to enhance the power and meaning of our interactions in the workplace and in community life.
In the wellness space, we're swamped by information overload about what to do and what not to do in order to remain healthy and live longer. We hear the latest about the benefits of kale and the detriments of BPA in plastic. Sometimes the information is contradictory or the research confusing, and much of it changes on a regular basis. What does stay consistent, however, is that healthy connections with others means fewer visits to the doctor, shorter stays at the hospital and a longer life span. This is undeniable.
The Beatles were right when they sang, "I just need someone to love." We all do. In fact, we need a community of people to love. It will reward us with health in all areas of our lives.
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