Love Thy Neighbor, Heal Thyself

By Alan Reders

Healthy living—at least, the way most of us do it—is a self-centered undertaking. Eating a nutritionally correct diet. Doing our daily workout come tsunami or shine. Cleaning our houses with Boraxo and vinegar instead of the usual chemical buffet. These steps unquestionably protect our inner workings, but they are all about us nonetheless.

Which is why the prescription for well-being may soon be revised to include a more expansive approach to life. A new field of research suggests that selflessness—especially altruism and ordinary kindness toward others—also appears to enhance health. The experts in this field often speak of these health-promoting behaviors and feelings as types of love, but love that is distinguished by its generosity and focus on others, without any expectation of its being returned.

So let’s call it other-directed love or ODL. The link between ODL and health isn’t close to being rock-solid proven yet, but all the early studies point pretty much in the same direction: Those of us who are kinder or who help others tend to be healthier, happier, receive better immune protection, or live longer—and perhaps all of the above.

Like love itself, the ODL-health connection comes with a warning label. Altruism can backfire—for instance, that rest- home gig can actually harm a volunteer’s health if she fails to limit her involvement and she gets overwhelmed. But in the main, ODL seems to have a measurable, positive impact on our health, much like those fussy dietary, exercise, and housecleaning regimens we maintain when our focus is purely on ourselves. And the fact that ODL is even being studied in a culture that seems to rank self-gratification above almost everything—including health—may be the biggest story of all.

An Age-Old Injunction

The notion that ODL improves health won’t surprise anyone who has heeded the Bible’s advice in Proverbs 11:25: “He that watereth shall be watered also himself.” That same equation—“to give is to receive”—is embedded in all major spiritual traditions, even if none of them spells out its health benefits. For instance, that notion lies at the heart of both karma yoga and the practices of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion) in Buddhism.

But here in the West, some will always condemn such ideas as squishy and sentimental unless science steps in to
validate them. That’s where organizations like the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL) come in. Along with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Petaluma, California), the Institute of HeartMath (Boulder Creek, California), and the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine (Arvada, Colorado), IRUL uses the scientific method to confirm that love really is the answer.

Located at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, IRUL was birthed in 2001 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. Templeton, now 92, is best known as an investment fund genius, but his foundation donates some $40 million a year for projects that explore the interface between science and religion. IRUL evaluates research proposals on ODL—many from major universities—and funds the most worthy ones. The science of ODL is only about 10 to 15 years old, says IRUL president Stephen Post, PhD, so any conclusions should be seen as preliminary. “The field is developing by leaps and bounds,” observes Post, who is also a bioethics professor at Case Western’s medical school. “But there’s a lot more to be done.”

The research completed so far points in a pretty consistent direction, though—ODL can rock your world, right down to the cellular level. In fact, even those who just witness ODL may receive benefits. In one of the most oft-cited studies, students who viewed a film of Mother Teresa helping poor and sick people in Calcutta, got an immune system boost, as evidenced by the increased level of a protective antibody in their salivary glands.

The implications that altruism improves health also jump out from research on volunteers. Post notes a pioneering study from 1956 that followed 427 married women with children for 30 years. Of the women who didn’t belong to a volunteer organization, 56 percent suffered a major illness sometime during that span. That compared to only 36 percent among the women who did belong to a volunteer group.

Much of the more recent work on altruism has been done on older adults who volunteer. A 1999 study analyzed the effect of volunteering on mortality rates among people 65 or older. Those who did a moderate amount of volunteering had a lower rate of death. If they overdid it to the point of strain, though, they canceled out the positive effects. The takeaway message: When you bestow kindness on folks, remember that you’re one of the folks.

The protective effect of ODL is tougher to measure in younger people, because most serious illnesses and death occur in later years. But AIDS patients are an exception, so researchers from the University of Miami examined the attributes of longtime AIDS survivors. They first noticed that the survivors were significantly more likely to be spiritual or religious. When they looked closer, they discovered the health effect of spirituality was associated with “helping others with HIV.”

When love hurts

If ODL is so good for you, what about the Valentine’s Day variety of love—the love between romantic and sexual partners? Healthy romantic or erotic unions clearly nurture both mind and body, but our relationships can pose some health risks if they go south.

Post observes that roughly half of all people who are heartbroken report being depressed. Although self-reports aren’t the same as clinical diagnoses, research clearly shows that depression increases the risk of ill health, says Jeff Levin, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist who also serves as a research consultant for IRUL.

In the mid-1990s, Levin decided to study the relationship between love and health, following up on the work of maverick sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889–1968). Sorokin, who established the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism back in 1949, is regarded as the father of the contemporary scientific analysis of love.

In his writings, Sorokin broke love down into seven dimensions. His scheme was complex, but it included such familiar concepts as altruism, which he called “social love,” and romantic/sexual love, which he termed “biological love.” Also on Sorokin’s list: loving and/or feeling loved by God and feeling part of a loving universe, all of which expand the notion of ODL. To identify the Sorokin dimensions that improve health, Levin and a colleague developed a questionnaire that they administered to patients at a family practice clinic. Patients affirmed statements that reflected their beliefs and experiences involving love and also rated their physical and emotional health.

The results? Every dimension of love studied, except one, correlated with patients describing better health, more positive emotional well-being, higher self-esteem, and a better sense of personal control in their lives. The one exception was—as any country music fan could guess—romantic love. Levin is quick to term his study “successful, but limited.” Still, the qualities the patients were asked about correlate with physical health in a large body of research literature going back decades, Levin says. For instance, positive psychological characteristics such as self-esteem are known to enhance health, and negative characteristics, such as depression, hurt it.

Why did romantic love rate so poorly in comparison to Sorokin’s other dimensions? Levin hazards a guess: “If by love we’re just focusing on sexual relationships, we’re leaving a lot out—friendship among people, compassion, a feeling of connection with God or to nature, altruism, and so on. And moreover, these other dimensions of what we might call love seem to be very positively related to our health and well-being.

“With the exception of maybe monks, the rest of us here in the world are sexual beings and need passion and romance in our life. Without that, a lot of us are miserable. But if we overvalue that in our lives to the extent of rejecting other ways of connecting with people, I think that can harm our health, as well.” In other words, to be healthy to the max, we have to look beyond the boundaries of our own skin.

Post observes that for all its wonderful qualities, romantic love can take some distinctly ungenerous turns. For instance, a husband or wife who falls for an outside lover may profoundly hurt his/her own partner and kids. “There are lots of studies that point to the positive aspect of romantic feelings and sexual intimacy,” Post says. “It’s just when romantic love isn’t shaped by friendship, deeper respect, and a deeper love that you get problems. Most of the studies
suggest that marriages, for example, last longer if they begin not in romantic infatuation—which is fleeting for the most part—but rather in friendship, in companionship, in a sense that one has something in common with the other.”

Confirming the obvious

While evidence that ODL improves health is beginning to pile up, the studies still don’t explain why ODL does what it does. Writer Marc Ian Barasch has some ideas on the subject, even though he’s not a scientist. The author most
recently of Field Notes on the Compassionate Life (Rodale, 2005), Barasch believes that to live without compassion conflicts with the reality that we are one with the entire web of nature, including all humanity. “I think a persistent state of avoidance has physiological effects,” he says. “The healing mechanism works better when you’re in a state of flow and nonresistance.” In traditional Tibetan medicine, he notes, healers trace diseases back to types of ego delusion—states of anger, for example—“because from their standpoint you’re not recognizing your commonality with the other person.

“Compassion overcomes the self-other dichotomy,” Barasch says. “And that makes it a powerful healing force.” As an example, he points to what he calls the “elixir of forgiveness,” since forgiveness is a form of compassion that research has shown to have direct healing properties. In one study Barasch highlights, cardiac patients who blamed others for their health crisis were more likely to have another heart attack. Barasch thinks Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, cofounder of that nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, understands the dynamic at play here. “It is important that I do all I can to restore relationship,” Tutu once told an interviewer, “because without relationship, I am nothing. I will shrivel.”

When Drs. Levin and Post offer their own hypotheses, they reflect the views of their intellectual father Sorokin, who unabashedly merged the scholarly with the spiritual. Sorokin felt that the scientific method was a crucial tool for convincing society to take advantage of ODL’s transformative power. But ultimately, he saw ODL as something that humans accessed from an infinite, divine source.

“Love is the essential life force, and when we find ways to experience it, we’re bringing it into manifestation in the world,” suggests Levin. “I think when we awaken in our consciousness through love, we can begin to see love in everything. We can see it in nature and each other, and we recognize that we have a steady and inexhaustible supply of life force.”

Post sees some mundane reasons for the health advantages of ODL—for example, its ability to replace negative emotional states such as stress, anger, and depression that are known to be health-harming. But he, too, feels that unlimited love points at something metaphysical. “Love begets love, and we don’t have to calculate reciprocal gains anymore,” he says. “We just love because we feel that’s the most exciting and delightful way to live.”

Where is this decidedly unruly scientific pursuit headed? Post is excited about several directions the research is taking—studies of the healing effects of ODL in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, studies that examine the link between ODL and “authentic” happiness, and studies that test whether people who love selflessly are more resilient when they suffer tragedies in their lives. But at some level, he thinks science is simply validating what has been clear to the sages throughout human history.

“I think that Dickens got it right in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is totally miserable when he’s just selfish as hell,” Post says. “With a little divine intervention, he discovers the love of others. By the story’s end, he’s bouncing around the streets of London like a kid. He’s effervescent, happy, energized.” And healthy, too, Post might add, with his institute’s research in hand. 

The Selfless Love Protocol

The following practices are consistent with research that suggests that kindness, compassion, and connection with
a loving universe can improve one’s health and well-being. Keep in mind that these practices don’t guarantee good health any more than a healthy diet or not smoking do. But they do seem to improve the odds.

Perform compassionate, not “in-group” altruism

Stephen Post, president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, notes that some altruists aim only for the benefit of their “in-group” (members of their faith or political party) while acting hostile to those outside the group. Instead, practice a form of altruism that harms no one. Be compassionate toward yourself, too. Set limits. Don’t let your helping overwhelm you.

Forgive, forgive, forgive

Forgiving others is a form of altruism. Research shows that unforgiving attitudes increase a person’s heart rate and blood pressure above levels that are normal for that individual. One study showed that cardiac patients who blame others for their first heart attack are more likely to have a second one.

Practice lovingkindness

Be more kind and loving in your ordinary encounters throughout the day—with other drivers on the road, with the supermarket cashier, or with the telephone solicitor, for example. Says Post, “It’s how you treat the people who aren’t of consequence to you in your life that I think is really important.”