What is love?
Love, often treated as an enigma, can be defined as a strong feeling of affection one experiences towards another person. Love is held in high regard by many people; it features heavily in all forms of media. Try to listen to a song on the radio or watch a film in the cinema without love playing a part – it won’t be an easy task. Love is all around us – especially around Valentines’ Day, when you can’t walk past a shop without a giant teddy bear declaring its affection on an enormous red love heart through the window. Because of this, I thought I would look into the effects of love on mental health. Is love, in its various forms, good for you?
All we need is love?
“All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, and while there are some obvious exceptions, such as food and water, they may not have been too far off. A psychological study conducted by Harlow (1958) demonstrated the powerful effects that love can have on the behaviour and development of an individual. Harlow revealed the importance of love for healthy childhood development through showing the adverse effects of deprivation on young rhesus monkeys. Deprivation of comfort and love caused digestive problems and psychological distress in the monkeys. The results of this study suggested that love and affection could be primary needs as necessary as food or water, showing a new perspective on the nature of love.
Love and stress
Research has shown that love can lead to increased ability to cope with stress. Allostatic load is a psychological term that refers to the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress. Seeman et al. (2002) conducted a study on allostatic load and social experiences. It was found that positive social experiences and higher levels of social integration were associated with lower allostatic load. For all age groups, it was shown that secure and loving relationships helped individuals to better deal with stress. This is good news for those in love – love can help you to better deal with the struggles you face in everyday life.
Love and mental health
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health disorders worldwide. Could love have any impact on these disorders? Higher rates of depression and anxiety are linked to social isolation, indicating that spending time with others could reduce the rates of these disorders. In fact, research has shown that getting married and staying married has been reported to reduce depression in both men and women. Attachment therapy and interpersonal therapy are often used to treat depression – these therapy methods focus on interpersonal relationships as a way to improve depression. Another common therapeutic method is Emotionally Focused Therapy. This method also focuses on interpersonal relationships in order to transform difficult relationships into ones that feel safe and secure. This has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. These therapeutic methods emphasise the importance of personal relationships for good mental health. Trauppman et al. (1981) conducted a study exploring the effects of intimacy on mental and physical health. The results showed that those who were happier and more satisfied in their relationships showed lower levels of depression, anxiety and self-consciousness. This suggests that intimacy could protect against depression and anxiety. Encouraging one another to be involved in loving, supportive relationships could potentially help us to overcome common mental illnesses.
Love and physical health
As has been shown above, love has the power to aid mental health. This made me question whether there was any way that being involved in loving relationships could improve physical health. According to Esch and Stefano (2005), love, compassion and joy improve the functioning of our immune system and help us to battle diseases. Supportive relationships have even been shown to improve prognoses in conditions such as cancer by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. It has also been reported that those who are married are happier, live longer, drink less alcohol and have less doctor’s appointments than single people. All is not lost if you are not in love, though – research has also shown that strong relationships with friends and family improve health outcomes as much as quitting smoking or quitting drinking do.
Love can have positive effects on our mental and physical health. It can lead to better ability to cope with stress, lower levels of depression and anxiety and even better physical health. Based on psychological research, intimate relationships have the potential to foster good mental and physical health. For those not in love – friendship has also been shown to have a positive effect on your health. All of the benefits of loving relationships make it easy to see why love is so important to so many people and why this time of year is celebrated in many countries around the world.
By Fiona Kerrigan