From the Dean

From the Dean

The English word "love" is one of the most inadequate words in the entire human lexicon. The concept of all-consuming selfless devotion encapsulated in the Greek word agape, for example, lays waste to the simple English phrase "I love." Never mind storge (Greek for natural affection or familial love), eros (passionate love), and philia (affectionate regard or friendship).

You'll find each of these in this issue of Findings, which explores the all-embracing concept we know as "love." From time to time, of course, we all misuse the word to convey affection, affinity, preferences. In its fullest sense, though, love is not the simple romanticism of greeting cards or novels but a complex force that can help heal individuals and communities and compel us to right wrongs, protect the defenseless, improve the environment, and address the structural impediments to the realization of our full potential as human beings.

It seems as if every day a new study underscores love's power to restore and improve health, reduce stress, and boost immunity. In our own work at the School of Public Health, we see love at work in many forms—in the joy of discovery, the challenge of solving seemingly intractable problems, the delight that comes in watching a community advocate for resources to improve the health of all. Each of these requires a steadfast devotion to a cause, the unrelenting proposition that as good as things get, they could be better.

In a field where the possibilities for massive financial reward can often be elusive, I have found theoreticians, practitioners, and stakeholders to be deeply passionate about their work in public health and motivated by something far beyond the material benefits of their labors. The engine of that drive is love for persons known or unknown, and is held together by the unifying theorem that there is a lofty estate called health to which we should not just aspire, but to which we must move individually and collectively.

In my own case, a love of chemistry and biology, and a passion to understand how these come together to affect human health, led me into toxicology-and to research aimed at developing treatments for certain cancers. Because of the nature of my work, I am routinely contacted by people seeking help for loved ones who suffer from cancer, and thus does love inspire multiple facets of my research. I know I am not alone in this experience.

Then there is the physiological power of love. We're learning more and more about the neurochemical and biological processes that love triggers in regions of the brain such as the ventral tegmentum, which affects our sense of satiety and satisfaction. We're learning more about the addictive nature of love—that feeling of "I need to see you, I've got to see you, I need more of you"—and about the impact of physical affection on human growth.

We know that if newborn babies are to develop empathy and sympathy, early and life-affirming human contact is crucial. We know that infants who are touched gently on a regular basis gain weight, grow at better rates, and have better health outcomes than those who don't regularly experience gentle human contact. That's why programs that bring volunteers into neonatal wards to hold babies close to their skin are so important. And, as research by our own Cleopatra Caldwell shows, positive physical as well as emotional contact between fathers and sons is critical to the well-being of both groups.

People who don't have enough physical or emotional contact with others tend to overeat or oversleep. Those who are starved of physical contact can be prone to unhealthy excesses that place not just their health but also their lives in jeopardy. All too often, when we misunderstand or pervert the definition of love, the result is domestic violence, risky sexual behaviors, and mental and physical health problems.

So love can bring great pain, but it can also bring great joy. At its best, love inspires us to become our better selves—people willing to do all we can for the benefit of our family, friends, community, and environment. It is this kind of all-encompassing love that drives us each day in our work to be better teachers, researchers, and above all, public servants.

-Martin Philbert
Dean and Professor of Toxicology

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.