By Allison Nye O'Donnell
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, I worked with a group of inmates in the local prison. My friends and family would ask me, "Aren't you scared to work in the prison?" The Peace Corps country director even asked me to write a statement detailing how I would guarantee my safety while working there. I posed the question to the group of prisoners. In all seriousness, one of the leaders said, "Allison, we guarantee your safety." I trusted him completely and wasn't scared, because I was working with a group of men who had love at the center of their hearts.
They did not have a good life by our standards. They lived in dormitories of 50 men with bunks stacked four high; the conditions were filthy, and some had no hopes of ever leaving. Yet not once did I see a trace of anger among those men, because their hearts were filled with love. Love of God, love for their families, and love for one another. They served their fellow inmates as teachers and leaders, while at the same time working to further their own educations. Their willingness to collaborate with me voluntarily, their unabashed religious faith, their genuine smiles, and their gratitude for my service and friendship showed me that it was love that motivated their actions. Their ability to love and serve others, despite their situation, humbled and inspired me. Their ability to love—despite their histories, which included everything from petty theft to murder—convinced me that love can heal deep wounds. It helped me see that true happiness comes from within, and loving and serving others can develop that happiness. If those men could live happy lives, full of love, so could I.
In a sermon he wrote while in a Georgia jail, Martin Luther King Jr. shared his insight that love should not be confused with some sentimental outpouring; love is much deeper than that. He spoke about an overflowing love that seeks nothing in return, the love of God operating in the human heart. I've come to believe this is the kind of love that can solve the most fundamental barriers to optimal health and wellness.
As public health practitioners, we fight battles that are often contentious and divisive. We fight against enemies rich and powerful, seen and unseen. We make decisions based on what we think is best for the public's health, even when those decisions are not popular. I believe that we need to keep love and service to others at the center of those decisions. In fact we need to keep love at the center of everything we do—not just to guide our decisions, but also to bolster our resilience in the face of adversity.
Love is not only about service to others. Love also serves ourselves. In fact, the research on the causal links between love and health is convincing and growing. The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love was founded with grant money from the John Templeton Foundation to fund studies on unlimited love. The institute defines unlimited love as
to affectively affirm as well as to gratefully delight in the well-being of others, and to engage in acts of care and service on their behalf. Unlimited Love extends to all people without exception, in an enduring and unconditional manner.
The institute highlights studies that have shown that giving reduces mortality later in life, and increases longevity (Oman). That social relationships and connectedness improve health (Holt-Lunstad). That love and affection are linked to hormones that help us reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve mood (NIH). They also highlight research from U-M SPH Professor Neal Krause that finds that supporting others actually improves our own well-being.
Rumi, the Sufi poet, knew this long before scientists started investigating it. He wrote that
Love is the cure, for your pain will keep giving birth to more pain until your eyes constantly exhale love as effortlessly as your body yields its scent.
I am convinced that love is the answer. My life experiences have shown me this, and current research supports it. The hard part is knowing how to cultivate and spread love in a world that often doesn't support it. Serving others seems to be a good start. Looks like public health professionals are on the right track.
Allison Nye O'Donnell recently finished a health policy internship in the U.S. Senate and is now working in advocacy at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. She received her MPH from U-M SPH in 2012.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton, "Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review," PLOS Medicine (July 2010).
Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (ca. 1963; repr., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977).
Neal Krause, A. Regula Herzog, and Elizabeth Baker, "Providing Support to Others and Well-Being in Later Life," Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Science (September 1992).
Doug Oman, Carl E. Thoresen, and Kay McMahon, "Volunteerism and Mortality among the Community-dwelling Elderly," Journal of Health Psychology (May 1999).
"The Power of Love: Hugs and Cuddles Have Long-Term Effects," NIH News in Health (February 2007).