The Rewards of Caring Relationships
Caring relationships are very important for your physical health. Scientific studies have shown that having a strong support network of friends and family is physiologically protective. Weak social support increases mortality, while strong support decreases it. Probably one reason for this circumstance is that being with friends and family helps reduce and counteract stress and its negative health effects.
Social support also heightens resilience in the face of adversity. Caring friends and family make us feel valued, increase our self-confidence, and foster a positive approach to life. All of these results help make us stronger.
Being cared for is great, but caring for others may bring even more health benefits. Caring for someone energizes us and gives us powerful reasons to thrive. This includes caring not only for other people—loving and caring for pets is a proven stress reducer. For elderly folks, even caring for a plant has been shown to promote better health.
Dr. Eva Selhub, Medical Director of the Benson/Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a strong proponent of the health benefits of love and friendship. I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Selhub at length in the fall of 2008 at a course in mind-body medicine held at Harvard Medical School. She kindly shared with me the manuscript of her book The Love Response®, published in February 2009 by Ballantine Books.
In The Love Response, Dr. Selhub presents strong evidence that love is a powerful healing force. Fear and the turbulence of stress ravage our bodies. But true expressions of love defeat fear and calm the turbulence, helping to restore our bodies to their natural balance. I highly recommend that you keep your eye out for The Love Response and purchase a copy when it is available.
Caring relationships also have benefits beyond health. We know from personal experience that such relationships foster happiness, and research firmly supports our experience. Studies show that for most people, having close friendships has a greater bearing on happiness than their income.
The Nature of Love
Truly caring for someone else is a selfless kind of love. Most of us feel this kind of love for various people in our life—our children, spouse, parents, close friends. When someone we love is ill or in trouble, we become totally focused on them. At that point, we transcend our ego and expand ourselves. At the same time, we enhance our self-image—it tends to make us feel good about who we are. Loving someone in this way can be profoundly satisfying. For many, it gives life its deepest meaning.
I hope you noticed that this wellness law begins with the word “Practice”—Practice Love and Compassion. This is because love and friendship aren’t just feelings. They are practices. They are activities. Loving is doing. As we all know, love can take work. For example, seeing the other person’s point of view can sometimes be difficult. But when we see through others’ eyes, we expand our minds.
Compassion and Kindness
The fifth law also tells us to practice compassion for others. Compassion is akin to love and one of the greatest virtues. It is a kind of fellow-feeling. Like love, it takes us out of ourselves and enlarges us. In fact, compassion helps us to see the incalculable worth of each of us. This idea is captured by a wonderful traditional Zen story.
There was a young fellow who wanted to understand what is most worthwhile in life. So he made a long journey to visit a holy man who was said to live in a house on top of a mountain. When the young man arrived at the house, an old servant wielding a broom greeted him at the door. “I came to see the wise holy man,” he said. “Certainly,” the servant said and led him inside. As they walked through the house, the young man’s eyes traveled everywhere, eagerly anticipating his meeting with the holy man. Very soon, he was at the back door, where he was escorted outside. He turned to the servant, “But I came to see the holy man!”
“You already have,” said the old man. “Everyone you may meet in life, even if they appear plain and insignificant—each of them, man, woman, or child—is holy. If you see people in this way, then whatever question you brought here with you will be answered.”
Compassion in action is kindness, one of the most beautiful of all human qualities. It’s also very classy to be kind. Isn’t it true in your own experience—that the classiest people you know are kind people?
Kindness sometimes seems a scarce commodity in the world, but it is not scarce in itself. It costs nothing to give someone a smile or a kind word. There are many opportunities to do so every day. Acts of kindness raise the spirits of both giver and receiver.
But kind acts shouldn’t be restricted to smiles. Volunteering for a cause we believe in can greatly enrich our lives. It’s also healthy! A study by the University of Michigan showed that elderly people who reported helping others with chores had half the mortality rate of those who reported not helping. Another study showed that people who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 44 percent lower mortality than those who didn’t volunteer.
When we contribute, we have a sense of being part of something worthwhile. When we give sincerely of ourselves, the resulting satisfaction far outweighs the time required.
The bottom line is that practicing love and compassion is essential for maximum wellness in all four dimensions. By sharing love and friendship, and by performing kind acts, we nurture not only others but ourselves. At the same time, we plant seeds of change that nurture the world. Love breeds love, kindness creates kindness. And all of it promotes wellness.