02/13/2012 04:05 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

For Health's Sake, Share and Enjoy Lots of Lovin', on Valentine's Day and Year Round

Valentine's Day has become a holiday that single people have reason to dread: Will I have a date, or will I be forced to buy my own box of chocolates? Couples, too, have reason for trepidation: Will I meet my partner's expectations for flowers, dinner reservations and romance?

Let's forget this holiday angst and temporarily elevated expectations and instead look beyond romantic love to deep affection in all its forms: marriage, family, friendship, community -- even to the unconditional love that shows itself in slobbery licks and tail wags from our adoring four-footed friends.

In the human health equation, love in all its varieties rains down benefits for us. So let's take this day to celebrate the joy, pleasure and positive psychology that love from all sources brings to our mental and physical health.

Love and Marriage

No doubt, marriage is good for your health, according to a large body of research stretching as far back as 1858, when epidemiologist William Farr studied the mortality rates of married people, single people and widows and widowers. He concluded, in what may be the first such careful study of the effect of marriage on health that, married people live longer than those who never married. Widows and widowers fare worst of all. His dire conclusion: "Marriage is a healthy estate. The single individual is more likely to be wrecked than the lives joined together in matrimony."

Before you single readers start devouring the entire box of chocolates you just bought for yourself, remember that this isn't the 19th century. And while studies continue to point to a health advantage for married people, recent findings are more nuanced.

It's true that a long-term federal study, the National Longitudinal Mortality Study, has found that marrieds are healthier and live longer than singles. Married people are less likely to suffer heart disease, cancer and a host of other diseases. They even do better after surgery. It is not clear from these association studies if marriage is protective of health or if healthier people are more likely to get married.

When researchers parse the data, they find that things change based on age and gender. For example, women older than 65 who live alone have lower mortality rates than those living with two or more people in the house; men who live alone continue to have higher rates of mortality than those living with others. The health advantage is always greater for married men than for married women, and, after about age 65, it continues to hold for men; but less so for women.

Not all marriages are made in heaven and some may be downright toxic. A troubled marriage is a source of ongoing stress. For many people, it can limit the ability of both spouses to reach out to others for support. Both factors, stress and isolation, are detrimental to good health. In fact, studies have shown that people in unhappy marriages have more depression and are unhappier than single people. Unhappily married people (go figure) even have more dental cavities than those in happy unions.

While the advent of online, speed dating and other modern methods have overtaken some time-tested practices of go-betweens, parental picks and long courtships, the studies show that the basics still matter in finding a partner for love, companionship and support that lasts for more than a blink. Although there may be cyber questionnaires, plenty of posted profiles to peruse and even assertions about research-based match-making assistance, it can come down to taking time (not the snap judgments of hurried encounters) and relying on common sense, as well as hearts throbbing, in choosing a long-term match: Do you agree on items like money and finances; raising children; resolving disputes; the role of romance versus realism in relationships; and are you both determined to slog through both the toil, as well as the joy of a long period, maybe a half century or more, together?

One reason that marriage may be more beneficial to men's than women's health, researchers speculate, is that women always have taken charge of getting their spouses to take care of their health. At older ages, single men may be less likely than married peers to get check-ups, eat healthy or avoid unhealthy behaviors (smoking, drinking). Another reason that older, single women fare better than older single men may be that women traditionally have built wider, deeper networks of support outside their marriages: friends, family, neighbors and community.

Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends

It's precisely those wide and deep networks of support that have been shown to keep us healthy, both men and women. It matters, studies show, that we sit down, talk and enjoy meals with our spouses and children (see my earlier blog). Friends, family, community -- any kind of social network -- boosts health. (Note: The data quoted refer to studies carried out with traditional social networks, not the Facebook type.)

In fact, one study ranked social relationships, or lack thereof, right up there with cigarette smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol level and obesity in its effect on health.

Here's where Americans could be headed for trouble. A surprising study reported in 2006 that those social networks that are so good for us are shrinking. Researchers asked people in 1985 about the number of people they confided in for help, or as sounding boards for important decisions. The number was three. In 2004, researchers asked the same question to a similar group of people. The average number dipped to two. What shocked the social scientists was that fully a quarter of the 1,500 or so people in the study reported that they had no one to confide in, neither kin nor friends. Perhaps this reflects an increase in mobility of Americans moving from one city to another or the isolation that comes from working from home on a computer rather than with colleagues in an office.

So for health's sake, make new friends, and keep the old. As the saying goes: "one is silver, and the other is gold." In an Australian study of about 1,500 adults age 70 or older, researchers followed these folks for 10 years and found that those who had strong social networks with friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those without such a network. Relationships with children and non-spousal relatives were not significant predictors of longevity in that study. A much larger analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 people examining the health effects of social ties found that over an average of 7.5 years, people with poor social connections had a 50 percent increased chance of dying.

Don't Forget Fido and Fluffy

Meantime, who or what could offer more daily comfort and affection than the critter that never fails to greet you at the door, tail wagging; or the one who curls up on your lap and in your bed, encouraging you to be still and relax? They don't care if you coo or rant. They're always willing to listen. Pets not only decrease your feelings of loneliness, they've been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve the individual's perceived quality of life (see my earlier post on this topic). And dog owners especially get more opportunities for exercise.

Children who love a pet learn valuable lessons in caring and nurturing, and get unconditional love in return. Adults in assisted living and nursing homes smile and talk more when a pet comes on the scene. And people with disabilities with companion animals have a source of social stimulation that is more constant and reliable than most human companions.

Valentine's Day is a day to rejoice in those who fill our hearts year round, whether your spouse, partner, best friend, children, Aunt Shirley, Uncle Bill, sister, brother or pet. We can all reach out to someone with a kiss, a hug, a slap on the back or a rub behind the ears in celebration of love.