Love as a Public Health Intervention

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Hurricane Harvey demonstrated that, in the words of expert CBS storyteller Steve Hartman, “When Mother Nature is at its worst, human nature is at its best.”1 Love and caring were in full display without regard to race, ethnicity, political beliefs, or other superficial differences. People came together in ways we see repeated in times of crisis: Neighbors caring for neighbors. Maybe John Lennon was correct. “Love is all you need.” Fifty years ago on June 25, 1967, in the first live global television broadcast, the Beatles sang the words that would capture hearts and minds of generations to come. Lennon himself stated that the lyrics were meant to galvanize action to “promote change.” Imagine a world where positive change occurs simply through love.
The word “love” has several meanings and is most often understood as a verb defining romantic feelings for another. Examples are parental love toward children, familial love for friends and relatives, and other strong individual caring and nurturing emotions or actions directed toward another person or group of people. Love, used as a noun, though, defines a state of compassion, care, and significant desire for a good outcome. Gary Chapman, author of several books on the meaning of love, describes looking at love as a way to change every aspect of our lives. Many will agree that loving comes naturally to us, and loving in our social connections and broader relationships improves and enhances our daily lives and sustains us in tough times2 (Figure 1).
While not determinants of health in the strictly scientific sense, actions that are motivated by love, care, compassion, helpfulness, and respect improve both actor and recipient well-being. We have known this for years as it relates to relationships and early childhood development.3 And though social epidemiologists may not directly reference “love” per se, they are now finding that developing strong individual and community connections builds a sense of well-being and reduction in the areas of interpersonal crime, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Love, as a context within which we live, may have powerful public health implications.
This may be very good news, since public health officials find themselves at an important crossroad in the ongoing effort to protect health and promote well-being for all. Our current assessment of the health of populations identifies disparate outcomes, significant chronic disease burden, and concern with an unhealthy developmental trajectory. For many children, this foretells an ominous future for many in the next generation. Some even describe an epidemic of loneliness.4 In the words of Albert Einstein, we can't expect the thinking that got us here to help us solve these problems.
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