Can love affect our health? Answering this question is no small undertaking, but I think the Grant study has managed it.This remarkable longitudinal medical study started in 1939 at Harvard Medical School with 724 men in their twenties. These participants agreed to grant access to their medical records, give blood samples, undergo brain imaging, and participate in interviews every two years. Whenever possible, the men’s parents, wives and children were also interviewed. The goal of the study was to identify predictors of healthy aging. The project is still going on today, with a diminishing sample of men who are now in their nineties.
Here are some of the most interesting conclusions, drawn by George Vaillant, who directed the study for the longest period in the 75+ years that it’s been going on:
- Love reduces basal metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and muscle tension, all of which lead to better health.
- Love can literally heal and strengthen our hearts.
- Having had a loving and stable marriage at 50 predicted mental and physical health at 80 better than did either exercise, weight, or cholesterol levels.
- Enjoying a securely attached relationship in the 80s is protective to the brain. Those who aren’t in warm, supportive relationships at that age see their memory decline more dramatically.
- People who are more socially connected to friends, family and community are not only happier, but also physically healthier, and they tend to live longer.
The most amazing thing to me about this study is that Vaillant didn’t set out to study love, but he found it to be most relevant to healthy aging nonetheless. Having had the pleasure of hearing Vaillant lecture roughly 10 years ago, I vividly remember him saying “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people… Full stop.”
Author’s Note: It is clear to me that love is a complex and important piece of the bigger wellness picture and that it belongs in organizational wellness programs. Curious? I’m giving a keynote address titled All You Need is Love at the WELCOA Summit on August 30, 2017.
Vaillant, G. E. (2009). Yes, I stand by my words: Happiness equals Love, full stop. Positive Psychology News. Also appears in Character Strengths Matter.
Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.
Pictures of Dick and Lillian Callen at their wedding in 1918 and at their golden wedding celebration in 1968 provided by their granddaughter, Kathryn Britton. Dick Callen was one of 6 brothers that reached their golden weddings. All but 2 of the participants in these 6 marriages are in the picture below.