I just finished watching a TED talk by Robert Waldinger, American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School who is known for his findings from the Grant Study, a 75-year-long Harvard study on adult happiness.
He started by asking, “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?”
There were several conclusions but the one that hit me really hard was when he observed,
“They also found that good relationships buffer us from the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported that, on the days when they experienced more physical pain, their mood remained happy but the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by their emotional pain.”
This was the observation that brought back a painful memory.
I was at my desk in the Board Development Department at the Institute of Directors where I worked as a Client Development Executive.
I was about to make a phone call when I was suddenly overcome by a pain in my chest. The pain was so intense that I doubled up, unable to breathe. The pain lasted several minutes and, when it finally subsided, I sat there, drained and really scared because I thought something was wrong with my heart.
My manager encouraged me to go home but I was reluctant. He didn’t understand. He thought I’d jump at the chance. What he didn’t know was that I dreaded the idea of my husband Jim looking at me with thinly veiled impatience when I was feeling as vulnerable as I did that day. I knew he would say something like “pull your socks up” or “don’t be silly”.
As it turned out, that chest pain was just one of a variety of conditions I developed throughout my marriage, some more severe than others.
Here are some examples:
- I started comfort eating which resulted in serious weight gain. To deal with that, I did the obvious. I went on a diet which, unexpectedly, led to bulimia, a serious eating disorder.
- I experienced several episodes of clinical depression.
- I suffered a variety of intense pains none of which seemed connected.
Contrast that with my health now.
At the age of 73 I have never felt better. I don’t even have any of the conditions associated with people my age. What changed?
For one thing, I left my marriage after 37 years, aged 60.
In the years that followed I went on to create a fulfilling life, attracting wonderful friendships, building a successful coaching practice as a relationship coach and doing all kinds of things I’d never done before. I discovered I like to experiment. I discovered I like to learn new things. I felt happy and fulfilled.
The one condition that remained was scoliosis, a deformity of the spine which became more painful as I grew older.
When I first met Paul in 2015, my lower back pain was pretty severe. However, I started noticing that, when we were together, the pain seemed to recede.
When I mentioned that to my friend Jon, he suggested, “that’s probably to do with the fact that, when you’re together, you release feel-good hormones.”
I was so intrigued by this idea that I decided to check it out.
I discovered that, when we feel happy in a relationship, we tend to release a variety of feel-good hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
On the other hand, when we are in an unhappy relationship, we release hormones such as cortisol, testosterone and adrenaline which tend to cause a variety of mental health related symptoms including depression and anxiety both of which I experienced when I was married to Jim.
Far from being unique, that TED talk and other research I carried out since then, confirmed my experience as a happily partnered woman which is that being with Paul reduces the intensity of my back pain because I feel supported and loved – just as my experience of pain when I was married to Jim was intense because, with him, in addition to the physical pain, I also felt unloved, unimportant and emotionally neglected.
As I was preparing for my talk at the DIVAS annual conference at the end of March where the theme was mental health, I chose to examine the relationship between our experience of love and the quality of our health – physical, mental and emotional.
Since that event, I’ve become even more interested in that connection, especially when I realised that there was one area I had overlooked: our relationship with ourselves.
Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-compassion, self-trust as well as truly knowing, liking and respecting ourselves, all of which are critical aspects of our relationship with ourselves, affect the quality of our health and wellbeing.
My own journey – coming from a place where I didn’t like, trust and most certainly where I didn’t respect myself – to where I am today, is proof of it.
Am I saying that when you love yourself and others you magically transform your health?
No, I don’t.
What I am saying is that, when you do, when you know you deserve better, when you know you’re worthy of being loved, valued, cherished and appreciated, and when you stop resigning yourself to a loveless life – as I did for so many years – you’re able to make better choices.
When I was married to Jim I believed that my situation was hopeless and that I was helpless to do anything about it. I believed myself to be a victim.
What is often not appreciated is that, when you feel good about yourself, you also notice more options and possibilities. Not only that, you also feel capable of pursuing them.
This is certainly true for me even though I’m 73.
All this begs the question:
If I’d known then what I know now, would I have done anything differently?
The honest but discouraging answer is, probably not. Why?
Because I would have been too scared to upset the status quo; because I didn’t have the insights, foundation or inner resources to deal with my situation.
It was a fear that cost me 37 years of my life.
Would I lack the same courage now?
Hell no! My life depends on it!
Has this article made you think? Please let me have your comments.
With love and gratitude,
P.S. I coach women over 50 who have not yet made the connection between the quality of their relationship with themselves and others and the quality of their health.
P.P.S. My third book, ‘Open Your Heart: The 7 Secrets Of Strong And Loving Relationships’ is now on Amazon and getting 5* reviews!