Scientists are discovering remarkable benefits from this supreme emotion.
Ask people how they stay healthy, and you are likely to hear a lot about eating well…exercising…getting enough sleep…etc.
But loving more? This isn’t likely to appear high on the list for even the most health-conscious people.
A shocking risk to your health: Your doctor probably won’t bring it up at your next checkup, but not having enough love in your life—and we don’t mean sex, but any kind of love—can be as hazardous to your health as well-known risk factors such as smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, according to a recent analysis of more than 300,000 people.
Anyone can bring more love into his/her life. We’ll tell you how. But first, here’s how love can improve your health…
GOOD FOR YOUR BODY
While love has long been known to promote emotional well-being, researchers have begun to uncover some of the actual physiological effects that can result in improved physical health. For example…
- Heart health improves. The expression and/or receipt of love has been linked to increased activity of the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain, through the face and neck to the chest and abdomen. This nerve calms the heart and steadies its rhythm as you breathe.New scientific evidence: When people habitually practice an exercise to increase the number of “loving moments” in their lives, their vagus nerves function at a higher level, and their cardiovascular health improves. Improved vagal tone also promotes better regulation of glucose and immunity.
- Antistress hormones rise. Each person’s levels of oxytocin, the hormone linked to trust and attachment, tend to go up.
A NEW WAY OF LOVING
Your capacity for love is like a muscle—whether it grows or shrinks depends on how much exercise it gets. However, most people are too restrictive in the way they think about love. It’s reserved primarily for, say, a romantic partner, a parent, child or longtime friend.
The fact is, however, the same elements of love that bring about positive physiological changes (so-called “micromoments of connection”) can be present with a casual acquaintance, a coworker or a barista at your favorite coffee shop. During these moments, it’s typical for your eyes to meet as you exchange pleasantries, you each may smile, your gestures are likely to mirror one another’s and you may even echo each other’s words.
While it’s true that the connections you have with acquaintances are not as deep as those you may have with family members, research shows that the frequency of these encounters has more effect on one’s well-being than the intensity.
LEARNING TO LOVE
Fortunately, you can have a loving moment in just about any reasonably relaxed, safe setting where feelings can be freely exchanged. While eye contact isn’t absolutely necessary—tone of voice, even over the phone, can convey a lot of feeling—face-to-face encounters are the most likely triggers.
The potentially bad news is that real-time conversation, especially in person, is going out of style—texting, e-mails and social media make such moments of real connection increasingly rare.
To reap the benefits of more love, you will have to pay less attention to your cell phone—Love Enemy No. 1—and more to the person you are riding with on the elevator!
Getting started: Just becoming aware of the possibility of connection is a major step forward.
Try this: Each night for several weeks, set aside a few minutes to review your day and consider encounters and interactions you had with others. Focus on the three longest and ask yourself, Did I feel “in tune” with the other person? Did I feel a closeness to him/her? Rate these statements from 1 (not true at all) to 7 (very true). Record your self-ratings in a notebook or computer file.
Researchers were surprised to discover that when study participants simply kept track of these encounters, without trying to change how they behaved or felt, their positive emotions and feelings of connection with others significantly increased and their vagal tone also improved. The nightly exercise may have served as a reminder during the day so that people were more open to the possibility of positive, loving connections with others.
Going a step further: For a more active approach, make it your intention to connect more fully with three people in the course of each day. You can’t force such moments to happen, but you can slow down, forget your to-do list momentarily, pay attention to those you meet and look for opportunities to share positive feelings.
In any situation where it seems natural, smile, make eye contact and really listen to the other person. Try to think of his good qualities and offer a favor if appropriate. Even better: Meditation, which provides its own health benefits, prepares you for such loving encounters (see below).
HOW TO MEDITATE FOR LOVE
A type of meditation known as “loving-kindness” strengthens your capacity for positive connections with others…
What to do: Sit comfortably in an upright, relaxed position that allows you to breathe deeply. Bring your attention to the region of your heart. Think of someone for whom you already have warm and compassionate feelings—your spouse, a child, a parent or a beloved friend. Visualize that individual’s face, bringing his/her best qualities to mind.
Take a few minutes to slowly repeat to yourself phrases of goodwill…
- May (this person) feel safe.
- May (he/she) be happy.
- May (he/she) feel healthy.
- May (he/she) live with ease.
Sit for a moment with these warm feelings. Then imagine someone else in your circle of friends, and go through the same process. When you feel ready, extend the practice to other people with whom you share a connection—no matter how slight. End your meditation by reminding yourself that you can generate such feelings anytime, anywhere.
Research has shown that just 60 minutes of this practice a week can provide the health benefits described above as well as more happiness in daily life. While you’re likely to get the most benefit from daily meditation, doing so for 15 to 20 minutes three to five times a week will also be extremely helpful.