Look younger! Feel more vibrant! Boost your stamina! Live Longer! Those are the promises made to us by marketing gurus about countless products from facial creams to dietary supplements, from the latest diet trend to the newest fitness fad. Psychological research, however, points us to a far greater (and less expensive!) secret to longevity. It is one that is often overlooked in our efforts to follow the advice of the marketing gurus. John Lennon may just have been right when he wrote "All You Need is Love." Research suggests that love may be an important predictor of longevity.
Consider the fact, for example, that having strong social relationships predicts a 50% increased chance of longevity.
It is not just the strength of our relationships that predict longevity, however, but rather the attitude with with which we engage in those relationships that predicts a longer and healthier life. While many think they need to find someone to love them, research shows that the greatest benefits for longevity and well-being come not from receiving love but rather from giving love to others.
• A study by Stephanie Brown at Stonybrook conducted with an elderly population showed that those who engaged in helping others and supporting others ended up living longer lives. This was not the case for people who were simply recipients of care and support.
• A study by Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan supports and extends Brown's findings by showing that volunteerism predicts a longer life. Interestingly, she found that volunteerism lengthened lives only when the volunteerism was done for selfless reasons. When we sincerely wish to help others we will reap the benefits thereof.
• An intriguing new study on loving-kindness meditation - a practice that involves generating love and benevolence towards others - shows that people who practice generating love on a regular basis have reduced cellular aging (telomere length). Who needs expensive face creams when meditation will do the trick?
How Do Connection and Love Boost our Health?
Research by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health, even speeding up recovery from disease. One way in which love may boost our health is by buffering us from the negative effects of stress and by helping promote positive feelings. Whereas negative emotions, such as anger and stress, have been linked to physical problems such as cardiovascular disease (e.g. a study by Suarez), social connection is linked to positive emotions and many health benefits including better immune function (e.g. this study). Even at the cellular level, our health and well-being thrive in a social context in which we can feel and express love. Steve Cole has found that social connection strengthens our immune system. Genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation. While people with low social connection have higher levels of inflammation, individuals who live a "eudaimonic" lifestyle - i.e. a life rich in compassion, altruism and greater meaning - have surprisingly low levels of inflammation.
Thankfully, Extroversion and a 1000 Friends on Facebook Are Not Required
Do you need to be an extrovert or a social butterfly to reap these benefits? Thankfully for the introverts among us, no. A number of studies have shown that our own internal subjective sense of connection, compassion or love suffice to protect our health and well-being. Generating a sense of compassion, volunteering and serving in any way that suits your personality, or even meditating on loving-kindness meditation are all ways that can help you experience greater compassion and love and as a consequence be happier and healthier.
Share the Love
A revealing sociological study has found that 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in. This survey suggests that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend! This decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counseling. This finding alone should persuade any of us to be kind to everyone we meet and to spread whatever cheer and warmth we can. It's win-win for both. As I've written about in a prior post, the benefits of love and compassion are manifold.
To stay updated on the science of happiness, health and social connection, see www.emmaseppala.com. Watch Emma's TEDx talk for a great summary of her work.
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© 2013 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.