“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” ~ Dr. Seuss
Embracing the inner ‘mush’ might give you sweaty palms and butterflies, accompanied by feelings of exhilaration and sheer joy, but being in love also offers numerous surprising health benefits that scientists have only recently begun to quantify.
This love doesn’t have to be of the romantic flavor, either. It can be love for a family member, a friend, a complete stranger, or even a non-ego based love for yourself, really.
When Christian, played by Ewan McGregor in the movie Moulin Rouge, said that the “greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” he was on to something; because love, quite plainly, can save your life, and possibly even prolong it.
Love Literally Makes Your Heart Stronger
There are numerous theories about why love makes the heart healthier, including one proposed by Christopher Suhar, MD, a cardiologist and the director of Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. He says that people in love tend to feel more calm and at peace, which translates to lower blood pressure. Love has also been shown to help people recover faster from heart and other surgeries. In addition to this evidence, there are dozens of recent studies suggesting that the heart may be more important for our overall health than we might have imagined.
The Heart is Even Smarter than the Brain
The heart is the hardest working muscle in the body, but it is surprisingly even smarter than the the brain. In the 1930s, Dr. Walter Cannon of Harvard Medical School showed that the heart responds to external nerves and hormones to help with a fight or flight response to keep us healthy. With 40,000 sensory neurons, and a stronger electromagnetic field than the brain, its no wonder that feelings of love translate, not just to our nervous system, but to every cell in our body, helping to heal us and make us feel more alive.
The HeartMath Institute has recorded the heart to be approximately 60 times greater electrically and up to 5,000 times stronger magnetically than the brain. In fact, the heart might be the most influential organ in the entire body.
The more you pay attention to how you feel – including those feelings of love – the more coherence there is between your heart and brain, and all the other systems of the body. Every time you feel gratitude, compassion, or love, your heart emits an electromagnetic signal that heals everything it comes into contact with – some would argue even, outside your own body.
Rollin McCraty’s book, The Energetic Heart, explains how the heart carries out the bioelectromagnetic interactions within and between people. For example, when we are not consciously communicating with others, our physiological systems are interacting in subtle and surprising ways. The electromagnetic signal produced by our hearts is registered in the brain waves of people around us. The heart is in fact an important carrier of emotional information and a key mediator of energetic interactions between all living things. When the energy of our hearts is coherent, our bodies change, as do our lives.
You could go as far as to say that the heart overrides the brain. It sends messages to the grey mass between our ears, and the brain obeys. The heart can even inhibit or facilitate the brain’s electrical activity, thus influencing how we perceive the world – essentially over-riding the analytical, mechanical, left-brain cognitive dominance of most of modern society, and all the stress that world creates, leading eventually to disease, or the eradication of it.
Love Reduces Anxiety
When dealing with anxiety, a loving, stable relationship is superior to new romance, but love is still at play, no matter the nature of the relationship. Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of people in love. They compared passionate new couples with strongly connected long-term couples. Both groups showed activation in a part of the brain associated with intense love.
“It’s the dopamine-reward area, the same area that responds to cocaine or winning a lot of money,” says Arthur Aron, PhD, one of the study’s authors. In longer-term relationships, “you also have activation in the areas associated with bonding … and less activation in the area that produces anxiety.”
This means that the oxytocin and dopamine dumps we see when people first fall in love are supported by other brain chemicals, and heart resonance as we learn to love someone through thick and thin.
Love Helps You Live Longer
A growing body of research suggests that love helps us to live longer. Using data from the National Health Interview Survey, researchers found that people who had never been married were 58% more likely to die than married people.
It is thought that love in marriage helps to garner mutual practical support, financial benefits, and children who provide love and support also. It also fends off feelings of isolation that can accompany people as the grow older. A sense of love and connection are what give people a reason to live longer.
Love Gives You a Happier Outlook
When you first fall in love with someone – a new baby, a beautiful person you met on a blind date, or the elderly coupe you met while volunteering at a retirement home – you see everything as a long-time meditator does. Flowers smell more fragrant. The sky seems more blue. The wind on your face feels completely amazing, and even regular people’s faces seem more attractive. You could say that you are seeing through the hyper-sensitive, rose-colored glasses of increased oxytocin and other happy hormones that love helps to boost in the body, but who really cares what chemical cocktail is making you feel so good? If love can make colors more vibrant and sounds more sweet, why not cultivate love wherever you can?
Love makes your outlook more positive because of the neuro-cardio-feedback loop which then creates a hormonal cascade to reinforce that feel-good high you are experiencing. Dopamine creates feelings of euphoria while adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for the pitter-patter of the heart, restlessness and overall preoccupation with your object of love. To make it last, rely on the fact that your brain is plastic – it can learn new things – and keep honoring love when it appears in your life.
In time, you can learn to feel this love for all people – not just a romantic love, or love for your own, close family members. Decades ago, Dr. Lobsang Tenzin Negi began developing research protocols with Emory graduate students used to systematically and rigorously study the effects of compassion on both physiological and behavioral levels. Negi helped to teach meditative practices that cultivated love and compassion. The scientific results accumulated since that time have been utterly astonishing. Love and compassion for others changes absolutely everything.