I just finished a book entitled Love 2.0 by Barbara L. Frederickson, Ph.D.. Good stuff. Basically the book is about the positive impact that love has on us as human beings. As I tell all of my patients, humans are "hard-wired" for connection (just ask poor Harlow's monkeys). So it's no surprise that when researchers such as Dr. Frederickson study the impact of love on things like health they find that love matters. For example, people who reported more loving contacts with others during the day had significantly better "vagal tone". Vagal tone is the relative health of the vagus nerve, the largest nerve in the body. The vagus nerve is responsible for your ability to recover from the fight or flight response. So after being scared or threatened (when your heart rate naturally accelerates) your vagus nerve helps the heart rate to slow back down to its normal pace. The better your vagal tone, the faster your heart rate recovers. People who report a higher number of loving connections during the day (this can be a warm hug from a friend, a sweet text from your significant other, etc.) have better vagal tone. They are literally healthier than people who have less positive social connections. Vagal tone is associated with heart disease also, and since heart disease is still the #1 killer in America, vagal tone should be important to us all. Vagal tone is also related to the strength of one's immune system, especially regarding inflammatory responses. Inflammation is implicated in things such as arthritis, strokes, diabetes and some gastrointestinal disorders. So again vagal tone is something we should be thinking about.
Dr. Frederickson gives lots of encouraging information about how we can improve the amount of "love" we get in our lives. For example she has found that just thinking about a loving exchange with someone we care about can cause the same health improvements as having that exchange. So sitting at your desk and remembering the big hug you got yesterday from your close friend can actually re-create the positive effect of that hug right then and there at your desk. There are precious few things we can do sitting at our desk that are going to improve our health, so I think this finding is very encouraging!
Another recommendation that Dr. Frederickson. makes is to practice LKM. This is Loving Kindness Meditation, a buddhist tradition. She gives explicit instructions on how to do LKM (it's quite easy) and explains-- you guessed it-- the numerous mental and physical health benefits of it. I especially appreciate that she explains how to do LMK if you have problems loving yourself (as many people do). Part of LKM can be directing loving feelings towards oneself, and that is not always easy if you come from a dysfunctional family where you were lead to believe that there were major things wrong with you. She gives some "work arounds" for this problem which I found very helpful.
If you are interested in research on the impact of positive social connections (aka "love") I think you will find this book very readable and informative. It doesn't focus on romantic love (so the title may seem a bit misleading) but does a great job of expanding our ideas about what love means and how it can influence our emotional and physical health.