There must be something in those Valentine chocolates that is good for you. After all, married people on average tend to live longer. Statistically, those with significant others in their lives also have fewer colds, stronger immune systems, spend fewer days in the hospital and even seem to do better in later years when dealing with neurodegenerative disorders.
Love can help you live a longer, happier life. It isn't the passionate first blush of love that brings the benefits. It's the warm strength of abiding love that protects well-being.
"People who have a satisfying, committed relationship are the ones who live longer," UAB behavioral scientist Josh Klapow PhD said. "The support of this kind of love helps to buffer stress. These couples tend to watch out for each other and give each other the nudge they need to go to the doctor to get a problem checked out. People in caring relationships tend to take better care of themselves when they know their well-being matters to someone else."
While taking the time to cook a healthy meal for yourself can seem like too much trouble, cooking meals to share with people whose health you want to protect can become a regular family routine. Likewise, being active is more enjoyable and more likely to happen when it is shared.
"Humans evolved as social beings with a need for connectivity," Klapow said. "It doesn't have to be marriage. Close friendships can also make a difference. A satisfying relationship has positive health benefits. On the flip side, a miserable relationship can have a negative effect on health."
Being alone isn't the same as being lonely. Alone time can allow contemplation to assess, create and plan. On the other hand, loneliness is linked to depression and poorer health.
In today's social structure, more people are alone and at risk of the negative effects of loneliness. More people are remaining single or become divorced. Extended family may live far away. Between work, commuting and the demands of daily life, finding time for social interaction can be difficult.
"We have more ways to connect than ever, thanks to technology" Klapow said. "It can help us stay in touch, but that is not the same as touching. It's no substitute for being with other people, and it can make us feel lonelier when it looks like everyone else is enjoying things that we're missing."
Humans need to connect with another person, to feel valued, loved and to give love.
"It isn't necessary to have a lot of relationships," Klapow said. "But we do need a few people in our lives with whom we share a connection."
When someone has limited opportunities to interact with others, the companionship of pets can help. Nursing home patients and autistic children tend to respond positively to pets.
"Pets can add affection, but they are not a complete substitute for human connectedness," Klapow said.
Any love that begins will eventually end, and in most cases, one partner will be left behind. So how do we keep love in our lives?
"You need to surround yourself with a network of caring relationships that will be there to support you after a loss," Klapow said. "These relationships need to be nurtured throughout life. Accidents and fatal illnesses can happen to anyone at any time."
Life is change, and we need to grow with those changes. Children grow up and we lose old friends to time and distance. We need to pursue activities we enjoy so we continue to meet new people who share our interests. This might include moving to a retirement community as we age, where there are more people to meet and easier access to stimulating activities.
Love is a human need that begins at birth. Babies who fail to bond may fail to thrive.
"We need to model what love is in front of our children," Klapow said. "When we argue, we should tell our children we still care about each other even if we have our differences. If the relationship ends in divorce, they should know we still have respect for each other.
"Children need to understand that relationships aren't just about receiving love and having a need fulfilled. It's also about giving love and respecting the beloved's autonomy as an independent person.
"We need to start early teaching our children how to be loveable. They need to feel secure in our love for them, and we need to teach them empathy and respect for other people. They should learn that the world doesn't revolve around them. There are other people in the world, and making a two-way connection can be satisfying. It's the first step toward enjoying a healthy lifetime of love."