Madison, Wis. — We all know that heart health is important so we exercise, watch what we eat, maybe even practice mindfulness. But there’s another aspect to healthy hearts that we may not always practice, but it is just as important to our health – love.
In this case, it’s not about romantic love – or at least not entirely. Love in its many forms, from the familiarity of good friends to the sometimes-you-don’t-always-feel-it-but-it’s-there love of long-term relationships. Spending time with loved ones – family and friends alike – can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and may even improve our cardiovascular health.
In the case of love, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain explains that it is the quality of our relationships and even how we feel about ourselves that really matters.
“We long to be told that we matter, whether by a friend, a family member or even a coworker,” she said. “We do better when we know that someone in our lives sees and appreciates us.”
Ways to bring more love into your life
It may not be something we often think about, but we can cultivate more love in our lives. To help, Mirgain shares a few tips:
“Often we look to others to fill us with love and affection, and yet it is something we need to provide for ourselves,” said Mirgain.
If a friend approached us, nervous about trying something new – like a sport or activity – no doubt we would be encouraging and supportive. But when we think about ourselves, the conversation is often negative – doubts about not being able to do the job well enough, fear of failure and more. Mirgain said it’s time to change that dialogue and offer compassion to ourselves.
“Try saying, 'I love you and you can do this’ to yourself when you’re doubting your abilities,” she said. “Or, consider a loving kindness meditation or other practice to help bring more compassion to your own body."
Mirgain notes that we are especially hard on ourselves when it comes to our own bodies. Stomach too bulgy, nose a little too big, too short, too tall – sometimes it seems there’s always something to criticize about ourselves. But that’s when it is important to stop and remember how amazing our bodies are. When we do, it often translates to taking care of our body through positive daily habits like exercise, healthy eating and getting rest.
“Being compassionate toward ourselves is also important for things like successful weight loss. When we’re kind to ourselves after getting off track, we’ll be more likely to stay motivated and continue progress toward our goals,” said Mirgain.
Generate more love in the world
When we express our appreciation for others, it actually benefits us as well.
"Offering kindness, being present when someone needs support, and even just saying thank you have reciprocal benefits," Mirgain said, adding, "It's especially true when you feel disagreements start to arise."
Often, we interpret other people’s actions through our own experiences and even insecurities. If someone is rude, it is easy to think it’s directed at us rather than realize the person may be distracted by upsetting news. Maybe they’re just tired and their words sound more critical than intended. Whatever the case, Mirgain suggests when we speak with kindness, we can often diffuse any tension and create a stronger connection with others.
We also underestimate how a simple thank you or showing our appreciation can make someone’s day. We often hold back from expressing gratitude because we doubt our ability to use “the right words.” But a recent study found that what the recipient truly valued was the positive intent and the warmth that was expressed. The simple act of saying thanks brings higher levels of surprise and happiness to others than we would have guessed.
Express more appreciation in the workplace
Love can take many forms. In the case of our places of work or volunteering, Mirgain said, it’s about expressing appreciation for colleagues and developing personal connections.
“We spend a lot of time each week with our colleagues. To help make the experience a positive one, look for the opportunities to connect and even have fun,” she said.
It’s common for people to feel like their hard work goes unrecognized or isn’t appreciated. Mirgain recommends writing a note saying thank you for their efforts or expressing your gratitude for ways they’ve helped you. Consider looking for ways to bring positive emotions into the workday such as through laughter or even fun. While some make think it’s just a distraction, research shows a positive team environment that includes fun or laughter can make employees more productive and creative.
Mirgain adds that whether it’s in the workplace or within our own family, when we maintain positive connections with others it helps us weather challenging times.
“Love, whether through affection or compassion, truly is a powerful force. When we work intentionally to bring it into our lives, it really can be life changing,” said Mirgain.