Science shows that falling in love boosts your health and wellbeing, but as Laura Jane Williams explains, you don’t actually need to find ‘the one’ to reap the benefits
‘A life without love is like a tree without blossom’ - so wrote prophet Khalil Gibran. From falling in lust during the heady euphoria of early dating, right through to the comforting routine of companionship in old age, there’s no denying that romantic love is one of life's richest experiences. And according to research, it doesn’t just make us happier but healthier too.
Studies at The University of Utah found that those in romantic relationships have fewer doctor visits, shorter hospital stays, and are less likely to succumb to the negative effects of stress, anxiety and depression.
No surprise then, that despite there being several types of love, all known to give us a deep sense of belonging, it’s romantic love that culturally we're most obsessed with. In fact, so powerful is it, that elderly couples can often die within weeks of each other because their hearts ache from loss. June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash are the most famous example of what is called Broken Heart Syndrome – literally dying of a broken heart. Romantic love then, is a proven life-force.
The downside to this apparent wellbeing panacea? Well, as the staggering 323 million people on dating apps would tell you, it doesn’t exactly come on prescription. Love may make the world go around, but you’ve got to find it first. Plus when you do, there’s no guarantee how long it will last. The average adult goes through three relationship break-ups and spends a year and a half getting over them. Is this really the best foundation to build our health and happiness on?
Poets, philosophers, psychologists and more have long tried to define love. But it’s generally agreed that emotional intimacy, affection and commitment are key components. And increasingly, experts are reminding us that there are other connections we can foster in our lives to get all this and more.
Whilst the science linking romantic love and health is clear, ‘a central romance isn’t necessarily the key to a happy and healthy life – connection is,’ says Sarah Powell, from Celebrate Yourself, a business that has not only seen her act as a celebrant at weddings worldwide but also helps people from all walks of life find joy.
‘I think the last few years have seen a huge shift towards finding love and contentment outside of a romantic relationship,’ she continues. ‘There is a desire for new friendships, self-care routines and mental health chat, as well as finding new hobbies, regardless of whether or not we have a partner.’
One proven way to cultivate connection, belonging and community is through finding a hobby you love. Anything that you do in your spare time for fun that relaxes your mind is considered a hobby, from collecting vintage handbags to hiking, taking a pottery class or being in a sports team.
‘There is an abundance of research that shows having a hobby is hugely beneficial to our wellbeing,’ says Sophie Cliff, a positive psychology practitioner, known as The Joyful Coach.
‘Engaging in leisure activities or hobbies has been shown to reduce stress levels, leading to better physical health and improved relationships. Creative activities are a good place to start - a New Zealand based study found that after engaging in creative activities, participants experience an increased positive mood and sense of flourishing.’
‘Research also suggests that while there are many benefits associated with solo hobbies, the benefits could be even greater if you engage in group or team hobbies. This is because they provide a greater opportunity for social connection and support, which are vital for wellbeing.’ And within those connections with likeminded people, a different kind of love can often flourish. The bonds forged over a mutual passion for horse-riding or music have outlived many a romantic liaison.
The realisation that love doesn’t have to be with someone you have sex with, or the sort of love portrayed in Hallmark movies or fairy tales can in itself be a wellbeing booster, especially if you haven’t found your soulmate yet, or are dealing with a break-up. But remarkably, we don’t even need to be especially close to the people in our lives to feel the wellbeing benefits of being connected.
Until the seventies, it was thought that a person’s wellbeing depended mainly on the quality of relationships with close friends and family. But research by Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter called The Strength of Weak Ties proposed that “strong ties” – our immediate friends and family – aren’t as important as our “weak ties” – an outer circle of acquaintances we see infrequently or fleetingly.
Think about the person you pass every day at the school gates, or who serves you your morning coffee – you might barely know their name, but these “weak ties” are crucial for our sense of community. In fact, in one study research participants with stronger social relationships had a “50% increased likelihood of survival... This finding remained consistent across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death, and follow-up period," showing that social connection is crucial to wellbeing. On the flipside, loneliness is one of the leading causes of stress and a weakened immune system, whereas cultivating our weak ties can lower cortisol, reduce pain, and even promote new brain cell growth. All that from simply saying hello to the dog-walker you pass on the street every morning!
It might not have the sentimental appeal of a fairytale, but in an age when dating apps have essentially commodified people, recognising these other opportunities for love is perhaps one of the most loving things we can do for ourselves. After all, we might only get one great romance in our lives, but the number of friends or weak ties we can make is endless.
And there are signs that society is starting to recognise that love stories come in many forms. Lady Gaga famously said she finds meaning in her work over romance because ‘a career will never wake up and tell you it doesn’t love you anymore.’ A Danish study found twins are less likely to marry because they already have a partner from birth. Communal living has boomed since the pandemic. The list of people finding love outside of a relationship goes on, because it turns out The Beatles really were right: all you need is love. We just need to think differently about where we find it.
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