Valentine's Day may get a bad rap as a greeting card holiday, but at the heart of it (no pun intended), it's an opportunity for us to be reminded of the loving relationships in our lives, which have a real and lasting impact on our health and well-being.
Factors like having a supportive community as you grow up, a secure job that you can rely on, or family that you see regularly make a big difference in determining both the quality and the quantity of your years, said Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D., author and HuffPost's medical editor. In other words, love makes you happier, but also healthier and long-living. However, maintaining these sorts of close relationships often goes unrecognized as a health behavior, he said.
"I believe that the need for love and connection and community is a fundamental thing ... as basic of a need as food, air and water," Ornish told HuffPost.
Conversely, people who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a strong sense of connection, community, and love in their lives, he added.
Ornish wrote in his 2008 book "The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health":
A fully committed relationship allows both people to feel complete trust in each other. Trust allows us to feel safe. When we feel safe, we can open our heart to the other person and be completely naked and vulnerable to them -- physically, emotionally and spiritually. When our hearts are fully open and vulnerable, we can experience profound levels of intimacy that are healing, joyful, powerful, creative and intensely ecstatic. We can surrender to each other out of strength and wisdom, not out of fear, weakness and submission.
But don't just take his word for it. Here is some of the latest research on the key factors for a lasting relationship, and the healthy benefits of love:
A main factor in a lasting relationship is having feelings that are consistently "in-sync" with your honey over time, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis. "We found that the longer periods of stability for the couple were great predictors of staying together," study researcher Emilio Ferrer, a psychology professor at UC Davis, said in a statement. To test this, researchers had 131 couples -- married and unmarried, of all ages -- answer questionnaires every day for 60 to 90 days. The participants had to record their emotions, both positive -- "trusted," free," "physically intimate" -- and negative -- "lonely," "angry," "deceived." Researchers then followed up a year after the questionnaires were answered to see which couples were still together. They found that 72 of them were still together. The researchers found that the bigger the differences in the couples' emotions as indicated in the questionnaires, the more likely they were to have broken up in the intervening year. "If they move around on the chart and are not consistent, they were more likely to break up," Ferrer said in the statement. This held true even for couples who reported times of happiness together, researchers found. Their work will be published in the journal Multivariate Behavioral Research this month.
Researchers from Kansas State University recently conducted a study that revealed what makes young couples satisfied with their relationships: having rewarding conversations. They analyzed levels of cortisol -- a hormone linked with stress -- and emotional reaction of fifty 18- to 20-year-old couples who weren't yet married, engaged or cohabiting. They had the couples talk about a relationship-straining subject for 20 minutes. Then, they had the couples talk for 20 minutes about a positive shared moment in the relationship, such as a first kiss or vacation. Researchers found that the couples whose measured stress levels responded to the conversation topic were also the ones who reported having a higher degree of relationship satisfaction and closeness. In other words, couples whose cortisol levels started out low before the negative conversation, got high in response to it, and returned to low after having the positive conversation. On the other hand, couples whose stress levels didn't come back down after having the positive conversation were also the ones who report having worse relationship satisfaction and closeness, researchers reported. "Whenever you get into a fight and you get amped up, it is typically more adaptive to let that go after the fight," study researcher Brenda McDaniel, assistant professor of psychology at Kansas State, said in a statement. "If you ruminate and keep that anger, it can have negative mental and physical consequences. It's better to have a nice downward recovery after conflict." Their research was presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in January, and is being submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
When it comes to relationships, it may serve you better not to be flighty. Research shows that people in committed, long-term relationships (marriage, anyone?) have better mental and physical health than those who are not in such relationships. Plus, these healthy benefits only get better as time goes on. Researchers from Cardiff University found that women in particular who are in committed relationships have improved mental health, while male partners have improved physical health. Researchers speculated that the improved physical health of the men might be because their female partner has a positive influence in terms of health behaviors like eating well and going to the doctor regularly, while women's improved mental health might be because of the importance and emphasis they place on committed relationship. The study was published early last year in the British Medical Journal.
Having close ties with friends, family, colleagues and neighbors doesn't just boost our happiness in the here and now -- research shows it could also improve our longevity. The research, conducted at Brigham Young University and published in 2010 in the journal PLoS Medicine, shows how being socially disconnected from people has the same odds of cutting down lifespan as other notable unhealthy behaviors, like drinking too much alcohol, smoking cigarettes, being obese and not exercising. Researchers reviewed the data from 148 studies that looked at health outcomes and human interaction of 308,849 study participants. They found that people who reported having good quality relationships were also 50 percent more likely to be alive when researchers followed up 7.5 years later, compared with people who didn't have good relationships. "We take relationships for granted as humans -- we're like fish that don't notice the water," study researcher Timothy Smith said in a statement. "That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health."
The benefits of being in a long-term relationship extend to mental health, according to a 2010 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand found that having a relationship of five years or longer was linked to a lower rate of depression, suicidal tendency, and drug and alcohol dependence. "This could be because emotional support and financial stability tends to increase over the course of a relationship," study researcher Sheree J. Gibb, Ph.D. said in a statement. Researchers found that the couple didn't have to be married or living together to gain the effect. The results held true even after taking into account factors like family background and previous mental health issues. "The study suggests that people who are at high risk of developing mental health problems may benefit from efforts to improve the stability and duration of their partner relationships, such as improved access to relationship counselling services," study researcher Sheree J. Gibb, Ph.D., told Medscape.