When we hear the word ‘health’, most of us think of diet, exercise, genes and . . . well that’s about it. We like to focus on the first two because we have some control over them. As for the genetic factor, it’s a little late to do much about that. But there is another factor; one that we do in fact have a lot of influence over that is, according to many of the world’s leading health authorities, the most significant variable of all in affecting the level of our overall well-being. That variable, according to such experts as Dean Ornish, Andrew Weil, Daniel Goleman, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Larry Dossey, John Robbins, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the quality of our relationships, or to put it more simply, in a four-letter word, “Love”.
We’re not referring to the syrupy-sweet Hollywood version of romantic infatuation (although, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that) but to the experience of deep intimate connection with another person with whom we share a mutual feeling of care, understanding, good will, and a desire to enhance each other’s well being. Love is not so much a feeling as it is a way of being which informs us to act in ways that are life-enhancing to others as well as to ourselves.
Giving and receiving love is the ultimate win-win game. Lovers tend to be somewhat unconcerned with a return on what they give. They don’t see their offerings of kindness and care as an investment for which a return will be forthcoming, but experience the benefits and rewards in the act of giving itself.
Most of us have experienced the pleasures and joys of giving enough to know that it feels good to contribute to the well-being of others, whether we show that love by an act of kindness, an encouraging word, a caring touch, an expression of appreciation, or any of the other countless ways that we humans have of touching the heart of another. Now, thanks to some important and compelling findings compiled by many researchers and scholars, including some of the forementioned individuals, there is hard evidence that it not only feels good to create caring relationships with others, but that such connections have a profound impact on the quality of our physical as well as emotional health.
It’s conclusive that one of the most significant factors that influences the strength of our immune system and our ability to sustain good health and recover from illness quickly, is the quality of our relationships.
In his best-selling book Healthy at 100, John Robbins cites a 1993 study from the British Medical Journal that followed 752 men for seven years monitoring the effects of stress on their lives. The study found that the men who were experiencing high levels of emotional stress at the beginning of the study had more than triple the risk of dying within the next seven years than those with lower stress levels.
While this wasn’t particularly surprising to the researchers, what was surprising was that for those men who at the outset of the study claimed to have a “dependable web of intimacy” including a spouse and/or close friends, there was no correlation whatsoever between high stress levels and the death rate. It turns out that social supports neutralize the negative impact of stress by lowering the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, which suppress immune resistance rendering the body more susceptible to disease.
In 2005, a ten year study which followed 3600 men and women aged 18-77 concluded that those women who kept quiet when conflicts arose with their spouses experienced the greatest health risk. While they may have thought that they were “keeping the peace” with their partners, they were four times more likely to die during the study than those who spoke their minds. This finding reminds us that it is not the presence of discord or negative feelings that causes emotional and physical suffering, but the way in which such feelings are dealt with. Suffering in silence produces a very different outcome than an honest expression of upset which can lead to and promote a deepened experience of intimacy and well-being.
In his ground-breaking book Love and Survival, Dr. Dean Ornish makes the point that it is not so much the number of social relationships that we have, but the nature of those relationships that influences our health and well-being. It’s definitely a matter of quality rather than quantity. Dr. Ornish claims that “While some studies measure the number of social relationships, I believe that it is your perception of the quality of those relationships- how you feel about them- that is most important.”
He goes on to cite a Yale study involving 119 men and 40 women were undergoing coronary angiography, an x-ray movie that shows the degree of blockages in coronary arteries. “Those who felt the most loved and supported had substantially less blockages in the arteries of their hearts.” The researchers found that feelings of being loved and emotionally supported were more important predictors of the severity of coronary artery blockages than was the number of relationships a person had. Equally important, this effect was independent of diet, smoking, exercise, cholesterol, family history, and other standard risk factors.
Dr. Ornish cites another study in which researchers from Case Western University followed nearly 10,000 married men with no prior history of angina (chest pain). Men who had high levels of risk factors such as elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, or electrocardiogram abnormalities were over 20 times more likely to develop chest pain over the next five years. However, those who answered ‘yes’ to the question, “Does your wife show you her love?” had “significantly less angina, even when they had high levels of these risk factors.” Men who had these risk factors but reported that they did not have a wife who showed her love had almost twice as much angina.
The researchers’ conclusion was “The partner’s love and support is an important balancing factor which apparently reduces the risk of angina pectoris, even in the presence of high-risk factors.” Those who answer ” No” to the questions “Do you have people in your life who really care for you, to whom you feel close, who are there to provide help you if you need it?” have a 3-5 times higher risk of premature death and disease from ALL causes. In addition, people are much more likely to choose life- enhancing behaviors rather than self-destructive ones when they feel loved and cared for.
The studies that Dr. Ornish cites also reflect this rather significant finding which is that loving relationships provide as much benefit to the giver as to the receiver. That is, it’s not just how much you GET, but how much you give that matters. Citing a study of over 700 elderly adults, the effects of aging had more to do with what they contributed to their support network than what they received from it. The more love and support they offered, the more they benefited themselves.
In a nutshell, anything that promotes feelings of love and intimacy is healing; anything that promotes feelings of isolation, separateness, loneliness, anger, cynicism, hostility, and related feelings, leads to suffering, illness, and premature death. These findings aren’t hypothetical conjectures, they’re based on hard scientific research. There seems to be little doubt that there is no greater gift that we can give to ourselves and our loved ones, than our offering of love and our openness to receive it when it is offered from others. Surprisingly, despite our desires and best efforts, practicing the exchange of love can be easier said than done. Creating loving relationships requires the willingness to experience unprotected openness and vulnerability, which for those of us who have unhealed past emotional wounds, can be a daunting prospect.
With a clear intention, a strong commitment and adequate emotional support however, the resistance to love that so many of us have experienced can be dissolved and transformed into life-giving energies that are empowering and creative. When we fully appreciate the possibilities that open up when we deeply connect with others, the motivation to become more loving arises within us, and we find the courage and commitment to live with an open, healthy heart. Literally!