What Is Love?

 
What is love? And how does it keep us healthy? // How a healthy relationship improves your health and happiness.
 
 

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. Blaise Pascal

 

Though in many ways “love” is a profoundly complex experience that can be hard to understand (and it’s true you can’t rationally control who you fall in love with!), the feelings associated with being in love have a neurobiological basis—that, of course, happens less in the heart and more in the brain.

THE CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

Biologically, falling in love is comprised of three chemical reactions in the brain:

  • Lust, our innate biological desire to mate and reproduce (driven by estrogen and testosterone)

  • Attraction, the excitement and exhilaration of being “in love” (driven by dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin)

  • Attachment, the desire for long-term relationships (fueled by oxytocin and vasopressin—which happen to be released during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding, presumably to facilitate bonding)

You may be familiar with dopamine as the brain’s “reward pathway” (it’s released when we do things that feel good to us). Brain scans of people in love show that their reward centers light up when they’re shown a photo of someone they love, compared to being shown a photo of someone they feel neutral about—they biochemically prefer their loved one to others!

THE EVOLUTION OF LOVE

Though humans are not technically lifelong monogamous creatures (it’s true—most early human societies were polygamous), that doesn’t mean that monogamous relationships are not possible or desirable for us.

For early humans, there was good reason for a two-parent family structure: human children have the longest time to maturity of any species, so mated pairing helps ensure that offspring survive to adulthood.

However, over time, the biological incentive for monogamous pairing became interlaced with complex social and cultural structures: the biological experience of love is now, in many cultures around the world, intertwined with marriage (a somewhat recent social construction).

But though social expression of love has changed over the millennia, our need for love has not:

HOW LOVE MAKES US HEALTHIER

Love and belonging are innate human needs—we love to love and be loved in return! So much so that our experience of love has many health benefits. Feeling securely attached in loving, healthy relationships has been shown to:

  • Increase happiness and life satisfaction

  • Improve immunity and reduce illness

  • Reduce rates of depression and drug abuse

  • Decrease stress and anxiety (social support reduces the biological stress response)

  • Reduce aches and pains

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Improve healing

  • Increase longevity

(Some of these outcomes may also be related to the fact that sex as a physical act of love has been shown to boost immunity, reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve sleep—though the jury’s still out on whether sex as an act of pleasure has the same health benefits.)

BUT I’M SINGLE! 😭😭😭

This is not to say that being single isn’t good for you too! Being single can be a wildly beneficial time to get to know yourself, build the life and lifestyle you want, and create space for a special person to join the fun. And, many of the benefits above can come from fulfilling and secure attachment in friendship too.


FOUR WELLNESS TIP

Nurture and enjoy your loving relationships—whether romantic or platonic—and reap the health benefits they give you!


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