Do I really have to …
Q: Why does being in love feel so good?
A: Rose-tinted glasses.
Q: Won’t having children kill me?
A: It only seems that way, sometimes.
Q: Does it matter who or what I love?
A: Only if it matters to you.
Q: Why is being lonely so bad?
A: We all need somewhere to belong.
Q: How do I find my perfect partner?
A: Fate, karma and luck.
Q: Is there an elixir of love?
A: Only in Harry Potter.
All we need is love. We may want for many other things, but love is all we need. Even if it weren’t such a catchy mantra, there are very many reasons for believing it to be absolutely true. Not least of which is the significantly better health and longevity experienced by those people in supportive long-term, loving relationships.
But really, how could love make us live longer? It’s very hard to know, partly as there is no easy way to work out who is lovingly coupled and who is not. One possible indicator of this kind of relationship is marriage. Obviously, not a perfect indicator. But still, if long-term love existed in the past, it was often but not always associated with marriage.
And it turns out that people who get hitched have, on average, better health and a longer life expectancy than those who live alone and never marry.
Despite its obvious limitations, marriage remains one of society’s most useful health-giving institutions, chiefly through its capacity to enhance and sustain relationships. Simply as public health strategy alone, marriage deserves to be more widely available.
Equally, it is abundantly clear that those people who, for whatever reason, have few social connections are not only isolated, lonely people (like Eleanor Rigby) but their health also suffers from their loneliness.
The magnitude of this burden is probably as significant for their survival as being a smoker, being overweight or a couch potato. For example, lonely hearts have twice as many heart attacks and are four times less likely to survive them, even after adjusting for higher blood pressure, cholesterol and rates of smoking. Cancer, stroke and other diseases are also more common.
At every stage of our adult lives, it seems that those people in a stable relationship are less likely to die than those who are out on their own.
How this actually works is mostly still a mystery. Much like love itself.
One possible reason for this longevity is that, no matter their composition, people in happy relationships behave and think differently from those who are not. We have all seen the change in couples when they get together. Often their lifestyle choices tend to be healthier. Not always, but most of the time.
Of course we can do many things about our health without love. But then, what’s the point?
When compared to singles, many couples are more optimistic and see life through rose-tinted glasses. Of course, almost no one wears red lenses in their glasses today. But this phrase comes from a time when it was very popular.
In the 16th century, during the plague of Black Death sweeping through Europe, doctors wore elaborate masks incorporating ruby-red glass eyes, ostensibly to make them less susceptible to evil. Rubies were thought to magically change colour, becoming dark and cloudy when danger was near. This is possibly because when we look through ruby/rose-tinted glasses anything dark red looks black in colour. And this includes blood. Not so scary now?
A good example of how less scary life is through rose-tinted glasses can be found in chickens. Chickens get all riled up and also fight more when they see the sight of red blood. This can be fixed by putting a hood with red lenses on the chicken. No more red blood means no more aggression and stress for a livid chicken, so a life viewed through rose tinted glasses is much more rosy.
There are many social and emotional pressures to fall in love and share this bond with others, whether in a family, a couple, a band, a team or even a community. There are also biological pressures that pull us towards others.
LISTEN: Is our constant quest for happiness making us sadder than ever? (post continues after audio...)
As discussed in Chapter 16, when we are pulled by the pressures of expectation, we are stressed and suffer as a result. When the stress of our loneliness is superimposed on other life stresses, the cumulative burden can be even greater.
But it’s not only what we have but what we do with it that counts. Our relationships can sometimes be stressful too, and bad relationships can be a significant source of bad health.
Relationships are a frequent cause of conflicts, worries and demands in our lives and these stresses are associated with a shortened life expectancy when compared to those people whose relationships are habitually free of these problems.
But more often, our relationships also have the capacity to bolster our physical, mental and spiritual resources when we need them.
At different times in our lives, different kinds of relationships are important for us. For example, in our teens and twenties it is all about quantity — girls in groups and boys in packs. In our thirties, it is more about quality, with fewer but closer relationships.
But while special close relationships are beneficial to us, they are not essential. Many people make up for quality with quantity. Extra friends, extra commitments, even extra wives seem to be beneficial to health, in the absence of one true love.
In each case, the sum of our loves is an important determinant of our present and future wellbeing, providing ready resources we need, as well as preparing us for the next steps in our lives. It could be one person or it could be many. It could even be a pet.
This is an extract from The Longevity List by Professor Merlin Thomas.