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How Important Is Love To Your Health?
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
In addressing lifestyle factors that influence health, it is important to consider food choices, exercise, rest, and environmental factors like fresh air and sunlight. Scientists are beginning to discover that there is one facet of life that ranks above all of these factors in determining wellness and longevity. This facet is the level of love and connectedness that we feel.
It is becoming clear that wellness and longevity are strongly dependent on experiencing supportive relationships with family and friends, and being involved in groups and activities that give us a sense of purpose and contribution. For example, a recently completed study that looked at 7,000 Californians over 17 years found that those who lacked meaningful social connections had a 200 to 300 percent greater chance of dying prematurely than those who felt more socially connected. A study of nearly 1,400 people with heart disease found that those with a spouse or confidant died at approximately one-third the rate of those who had no one to confide in. Another recent survey of more than 21,000 older adults found that weekly church attendance was associated with 7 years of longer life expectancy for Caucasian Americans and 14 years for African-Americans.
Well-respected author and medical doctor, Dean Ornish, makes a powerful claim for the value of love and intimacy: "I am not aware of any other factor in medicine – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes. Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer, and what leads to healing."
In his book, Love and Survival, Dr. Ornish writes about cultivating a feeling of love and connectedness with those close to us by expressing our feelings rather than evaluations. He refers to this as using "I feel" statements, examples being "I feel afraid that you'll think I'm not good enough if I don't make enough money," and "I feel hurt by what you just said." These sorts of feelings cannot be argued about, because they are true to the person saying them. If we express our true feelings to those who are committed to loving and supporting us, then through increased vulnerability and compassion, we can increase our understanding of and love for each other. Of course, being vulnerable enough to share true feelings in this manner requires great courage and a feeling of safety and trust that each person involved must strive to foster. "I feel" statements are distinctly different from our evaluations, which tend to make others feel judged, decreasing feelings of love and connectedness. Examples of evaluations include "You're always on my back," and "Why can't you do that differently?" It is important to be careful not to disguise evaluations in the form of "I feel" statements, as these statements are really judgements in disguise. An example of this is, "I feel that you're a jerk."
The extent to which communicating our true feelings can increase love and intimacy in our lives is largely dependent on the willingness of those involved to listen with compassion and to strive to deeply understand the other person's feelings and perspective. Empathic listening of this nature requires tremendous patience and a commitment to putting love before tangible entities. An excellent resource on empathic listening is "Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood," habit number five in Dr. Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
In summary, if you are interested in wellness and longevity, it appears fruitful to foster meaningful relationships that provide a sense of love and connectedness. As Dr. Ornish states succinctly, "Know that this really matters to your health."
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