Scroll down to listen to this article.
If there’s one thing I learned in elementary school… well, it was probably how to read. But if there’s one thing I learned every year around this time, it’s that Valentine’s Day isn’t just for lovers but for friends and classmates, too. Valentine’s Day is the time of year we celebrate the most special people in our lives – and it’s a good time to investigate the health effects of love and social relationships.
Love is a curious word. I love my wife and child, but also my cats, parents, siblings, friends, cookies, pizza, and ice cream. While some of my loves are potentially dangerous (or so my blood pressure tells me), my love of friends, family, and community might keep me alive – or at least balance the carbs. Studies have shown that maintaining social relationships can lower the rate of all-cause mortality: love literally increases your lifespan. This has been suspected for centuries and can be seen anecdotally in extreme examples with hermits, but it has been causally validated in recent years. Multiple studies in several countries have found that those with healthy social relationships are around half as likely to die over a given time span than isolated people. These relationships included marriage, contact with friends and family, and participation in communities like church, and other formal and informal groups. But how could our social lives affect our health? And what is the scientific definition of love anyway?
Love is… hard to define. One of the best ways to describe love is as a motivation system. It’s not only an emotion because it lasts much longer and shapes how we act over long periods of time. Instead, it’s the part of our personality that recognizes our need for social relationships to survive and reproduce. A skillful lone person can survive in the wilderness or on a deserted island for a while, but they will have trouble if they break an arm or try to have children without anyone else around. We need each other, and one of the parts that ensures we will act prosocially is love. So what’s that look like inside the brain?
Experiments show that a brain on love has a few hallmarks. The brain activates the reward system and parts of the cortex (medial insula, anterior cingulate cortex, hippocampus). The reward system encourages us to keep loving others and boosts dopamine, which makes us feel good, raises our desire, and acts in an almost addictive way similar to cocaine. The brain also lowers the activation of the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, the sympathetic “fight or flight” response, and chemicals like cortisol. Love also deactivates parts of the brain associated with social judgment, assessing other people’s intentions, and “negative emotions” like sadness. Serotonin is also suppressed, which may lead to obsessive symptoms similar to OCD. Love is both addictive and obsessive!
Two hormones are released by the hypothalamus: oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” and increases attachment and bonding. It’s released in romantic love and during childbirth. It is thought to help mothers bond with babies. Vasopressin also increases bonding and attachment while affecting blood pressure and the kidneys. This gives a clue as to how love can be healthy.
In most developed nations (including the USA), the biggest causes of death aren’t from infectious diseases but from chronic ones. Diseases like heart disease are exacerbated by stress and stress hormones like cortisol and those of the sympathetic nervous system. Studies have shown that animals with social relationships have fewer ulcers and neurotic conditions and have lower blood pressure. Social support is able to mitigate stress and its negative effects. Love also has positive effects on the big picture of how we run our lives, giving us meaning, coherence, and promoting healthy behaviors like self-improvement and getting enough sleep (after college at least).
So this Valentine’s Day, tell those around you that you love them. Appreciate the relationships and communities you are a part of and activate those obsessive and addictive parts of your brain on something healthy. It’s elementary, really.
Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA
Listen to the article here:
Cuzzo, B., Padala, S. A., & Lappin, S. L. (2023). Physiology, vasopressin. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526069/
House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540-545. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Debra-Umberson/publication/19756223_Social_Relationships_and_Health/links/00b495220b128b3aec000000/Social-Relationships-and-Health.pdf
Seshadri, K. G. (2016). The neuroendocrinology of love. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 20(4), 558. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911849/
Zeki, S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. FEBS letters, 581(14), 2575-2579. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014579307004875