Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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The science of love and loneliness

heart and mind illo

We all know the power of love and our society's obsession with all things amorous. We have countless songs, movies, books and even a holiday to prove it. But can love really shape our health and how we act and behave? Cupid (and scientific research) say yes.

Love, lust, and attachment—what’s the difference?

We think we know when we are in love versus in lust, but it’s usually not until hindsight kicks in that we notice the spell we were under. And are we to blame? We’ve been sold the idea that love is intoxicating, all-consuming and always comes with a happy ending. But did you know those over-the-moon emotions associated with love can be broken into three forms of attachment called lust, attachment and attraction? Additionally, each one serves a purpose and causes the release of different hormones within our bodies. When studied by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, she learned the following:

• Lust: The hypothalamus triggers the release of testosterone and estrogen with the goal of sexual gratification and fulfilling biological reproduction needs.

• Attraction: Dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are released to create euphoric feelings that light up the reward centers of the brain.

• Attachment: Rooted in companionship and a mutual desire to grow and support each other, the brain releases oxytocin and vasopressin, which fuel deep bonds.

On average, a man will spend a year of his life staring at women.

Also, studies show men are more emotionally affected when relationships end.

Did you know?

On average, a man will spend a year of his life staring at women.

Also, studies show men are more emotionally affected when relationships end.

So how can you tell what you're truly feeling?

• Lust: There’s sex and then there’s intimacy. When you lust, you crave sex. When you love, you crave intimacy. Lust is powerful and takes reason away from the heart, but these feelings are often temporary, and the person fills a small season of our life.

• Love: Love can spark heat in the beginning, but what differentiates it from other forms of attachment is the desire to become emotionally closer to the person you're with. You want to listen to their needs, create safe space, see their vulnerability and plan a future. Still not sure where you stand? Here are a few quick ways to identify whether you should be ringing wedding bells or alarms.

1. Use of “we”: When talking about your new guy or girl and your future plans, are you using “we” or “I” in conversation? The subtle difference may be a key indicator of whether or not you actually see a future with the person.

2. What are you willing to sacrifice? When you truly love someone, you are willing to make sacrifices within your own life to ensure that you are building a partnership. If you aren't willing to compromise at all, it may just be lust.

3. What kinds of conversations are you having? If you find yourself rarely wanting to dive into their past, beliefs, interests or anything beyond “what are u up 2?” it may be just a lust thing.

4. How you spend time: Would you take this person to a movie you’ve been dying to see or a sibling’s birthday? Or do you two end up at someone’s place, rarely interacting with the outside world? Love is when we can be out in the world, sharing our experiences with another person. Lust is when we create our own bubble and keep them closed off to the messy and mundane parts of our life.

On average, people fall in love seven times before they get married.

Seventh time's the charm

On average, people fall in love seven times before they get married.

Can you be addicted to love?

Simply put, yes. Most of the time it’s more of an addiction to the hormones released and feelings at the beginning of a relationship: the chase, the excitement and the unknown. Once those feelings dwindle, the addiction may cause for another relationship to begin quickly. Most people who have love addictions don’t stay in love or in relationships for long and often suffer from abandonment issues stemming from their childhood or a need for validation. Like any addiction, it has a lot to do with how the brain functions on the drug (love), and how the brain is then hijacked and put on a one-track path.

Lonely but not alone

60% of lonely people are married, according to Psychology Today.

Death by broken heart

According to you can, in fact, die of a broken heart. Broken heart syndrome is also called stressed-induced cardiomyopathy, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It happens as a result of a weakened left ventricle caused by emotional stress, which creates a surge of hormones that shock the heart. Symptoms are similar to a heart attack. It's much more common in women and can be triggered by the death of a loved one, a divorce, break-up, physical separation, betrayal and more.

How can you combat loneliness?

• Notice how you feel. It’s normal to feel lonely at times, but if you feel alone more often than not, it’s time to see a specialist or take action.

• Work for connection. Isolation affects our health and should be worked on just as you would a diet or exercise routine. Join groups you are passionate about, and try friendship apps such as Meetup, Nextdoor and Bumble’s friend section.

• Know you are not alone. According to recent health studies, nearly half of Americans report feeling lonely or isolated in social settings.

Lonely in a room of people

We live in a time where people are more digitally connected than ever but less emotionally aware and present. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter make us feel as though we have thousands of connections and intimate details of others’ lives without ever really knowing them or letting ourselves be known. Studies have proven that those who feel socially isolated often spend more than two hours online each day.

Did you know?

Loneliness is nearly as prevalent as obesity.

Can being lonely be dangerous to your health?

Human connection is essential to our growth and feeling of safety. Dr. Amy Sullivan, psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic, says there are long-term health consequences to loneliness that can be just as harmful as smoking and obesity. When you feel lonely, your stress hormone cortisol rises, affecting your cognitive performance, immune system, body inflammation and more. Lonely people may get sick more often, have less stamina and struggle with serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.