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Why Love Is a Pillar of Health

While our Valentine’s Day celebrations traditionally center around connecting with our romantic partners, this year feels different. After months of social distancing and sheltering in place with our closest relations, perhaps this year we can take advantage of this day to instead reconnect with the people we’ve been apart from.

The need to connect with others is as ancient as humankind and, in fact, biologically hard-wired.  There is a whole field of study that focuses on the effects of social interaction on brain development, called Social Neuroscience. According to Patricia Barchas, a pioneer in this field, one of the reasons we evolved as the dominant species on the planet was our ability to organize in small groups to coordinate activities such as hunting-and-gathering and protecting members from external threats. Our brains and small-group behavior thus evolved and adapted together, creating deep interrelationships.

And so, we are social creatures for whom the desire for interpersonal attachments is a hard-wired human motivation. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Love & Belonging sits right in the middle, coming right after Physiological and Safety needs and before the desires for Esteem and Self-actualization. This need is so substantive, that the absence of strong social bonds has been shown to harm our health at levels comparable to smoking (!), and is a reliable predictor of mortality risk.

The opposite is also true. That’s one of the clearest conclusions of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study on happiness and life satisfaction ever conducted. For over 75 years, this study has tracked the lives of 724 men and their families. Half of the group was recruited from Harvard, the other half came from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Regardless of which group the participants came from, the principal finding was that the key to their happiness was not professional accomplishments, wealth, or social status. It was having close, high-quality relationships with others. Specifically, the study’s data showed that the biggest predictor of health in participants at age 80 was their level of satisfaction with their social relations at age 50.

We must focus, therefore, not only on adding more years to our life but more life to our years. Let's make sure we shake off the social inertia imposed by the pandemic and take advantage of this day to reach out to those friends, colleagues, relatives, and other social connections we’ve fallen out of touch with. Remember, too, that there is real power in going first: being the one to pick up the phone, or extending the invite. To get you going, here are some fun things you can do together, even if you’re physically apart:

  • Schedule a virtual cooking class, mixology class, or wine tasting to connect over a fun and different activity, or one reminiscent of something you might have done together in person before
  • Host a Game Night online. Whether it’s Trivia Night, a virtual jigsaw puzzle, or online board games, there are countless resources for a fun break from the usual catch-up call
  • Have a Watch Party to enjoy a movie or show together with your (grand)kids or someone you used to go to the movie theater with all the time. Lots of services (Sling, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and more) all offer some version of ‘watching together apart’ these days.
  • Or just do a regular video call but do it while you’re going about your normal day, to make it feel more like when they’re really there with you instead of like a ‘phone catch-up’: take them with you for a walk in the woods, park the phone on the kitchen counter while you’re making coffee or dinner, or bring the phone outside to show them your latest garden project.  

Whatever way you choose to connect on this, or any other, day, remember that it not only feels good, it is good for your longevity, too.

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