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Healthy Relationships and How They Can Improve Your Mood

People in loving, healthy relationships are, at their core, much happier than those who are not, thanks to the chemical responses that occur in the brain when they are triggered by the deep emotion. When people are in love, the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and oxytocin flood the brain’s reward centers, creating a deeper sense of pleasure as well as an elevated mood.

Because of what happens to the brain when you're in love, researchers worldwide have spent decades looking to harness that power in order to help increase health benefits. Essentially, love can have a powerful impact on mental health – which in turn improves physical health. It suggests that a good, loving relationship can be one of the most effective tools to target symptoms of anxiety and depression. 1

healthy relationship Looking for love’s happy side

Based on the results of the 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development, better known as the Harvard Happiness Study, the connections we forge with people, especially our romantic connections, are far more important to happiness than job satisfaction or money.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period,” said the study’s director, Robert Waldinger. 2 Brain imagery is one of the ways we’ve determined this to be not just anecdotally, but also scientifically, true.

In 2005, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher used brain scans of people looking at photos of romantic partners versus snapshots of acquaintances to find that romantic love triggered activity in the areas of brain where dopamine levels are, including the brain’s reward centers - the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area, both of which are associated with pleasure and reward. 3

As researchers studied the science of love, they soon realized that the chemical responses to love were not just isolated to the reward centers, but were also especially busy in the stress centers of the brain, suggesting that being in love also helps minimize symptoms of anxiety. 4

Healthy relationships lower stress levels healthy relationship

In 2001’s book release “A General Theory of Love,” three psychiatry professors – Drs. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon – discuss how neurotransmitters and hormones begin a delicate dance from our earliest days, and early familial relationships, when they are loving ones, create a “synchronized” limbic system that is happier, healthier and better able to manage stress. 5

Because anxiety is one of the harbingers of depression – symptoms of stress can often lead to depression especially when anxiety is long-term, which can make people irritable and less able to manage symptoms – something that can control it, such as love, becomes even more appealing.

Research dates back to 1969, when British psychiatrist John Bowlby, MD, author of the book “Attachment” and a leader in developmental science, found that a strong, secure relationship was an important coping strategy against stress.

Ultimately, people in a healthy, happy relationship have a better ability to manage what is known as allostatic load, a term coined in the 1980s that represents the physiological effects of chronic stress and determines how strong a person will be in the wake of stress. Someone who has just experienced a personal tragedy or an illness, for example, would in many cases be carrying a heavier allostatic load than someone who was not undergoing life stress. Being in love helps protect against the allostatic load, preventing it from becoming overwhelming.

As if we needed another reason to love this thing called love? And it’s not just allostatic load that benefits from a relationship. According to a 2005 study appearing in the journal Neuroendocrinology Letters, people in love have lower stress levels overall, after the initial uncertainty associated with new relationships – which can temporarily boost levels of the stress hormone cortisol - wears off.

healthy relationships Relationships bolster overall health

In the long term, because of the way people physically respond to stress, relationships make people healthier, too.

People in happy marriages are less likely to experience anxiety or depression than those who are not married, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that analyzed numerous studies surrounding the psychology of marriage and happiness. 6

A 1990 study found that marriage is emotionally rewarding for most people, and the coupling provides emotional benefits that protect against stress, depression, and anxiety, which in turn leads to better physical health, because improved mental health offers physical benefits, as well. Experts believe that the bonds between married couple help build feelings of self-worth while providing support and intimacy, all of which help contribute to an improved mood – and better overall health.

“These emotional benefits may, in turn, improve their physical health, by reducing the toll stress, depression, and other mental health problems can take on physical well-being,” HSS researchers wrote.

Health problems are more pronounced if a person experiences allostatic overload, which can occur during times of extreme stress or stressful events coupled with other factors including a poor diet, a lack of exercise of increased oxidative stress, all of which creates more physical vulnerability to stress and anxiety. 7

To prove those health benefits, people in good relationships live longer, according to Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones,” a book exploring the geographical elements connecting the people in the world with the longest, healthiest lives.

Relationships were one of the most important elements, according to Buettner, who found that long-term relationships not only encourage people to be more active but also help protect brain health, leading to stronger memory function. 8 Those results were echoed in Harvard’s Happiness Study, which found that healthy relationships were key to the long-term health of the study’s participants.

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn't their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” Waldinger said in a TED talk. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Final Thoughts

So as it turns out, your relationship status has a lot more to do with not only your mood and happiness but your physical health and well-being as well. Of course, if it were that easy to find love, there wouldn't be a whole industry of love songs, shows, movies, dating apps, and so on.

Photo Credits: Bobex-73/, LookStudio/, LightfieldStudios/, DeanDrobot/

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