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February, which is both American Heart Month and when Valentine’s Day happens, invites us to celebrate the multi-dimensional issues of the heart.

We have Esther Howland (1828-1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts to thank for our modern day tradition of sending Valentines to those we love. Howland took her inspiration from the handwritten notes of the 19th century that were popular in England. In 1847, she started, for the first time, to mass produce valentines in the U.S. made of embossed paper lace. The Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately 190 million valentines are sent each year.

The ability to develop close relationships is as essential to our health as nutrition

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson designated February as American Heart Month with the formal “Proclamation 3566.” In it, he declared, “It is essential to the health and well-being of our nation that our citizens be made aware of the medical, social, and economic aspects of cardiovascular disease.”

Beyond holidays and proclamations, holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel, in his book, Open Heart, effectively and poignantly illustrated both the seen and unseen issues of the heart. He tells the story of the emergency heart surgery he underwent at age 82 from which he made a full recovery. As a direct result of this experience, he shares what he learned about mortality, work, and what gives life meaning.

He does not talk about the many distinguished awards he has received over the years that include the U.S. Congressional Medal, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, The French Legion of Honor’s Grand Cross and The Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, while taking stock of his life and accomplishments following his heart event, he concludes that one of the greatest offerings we can give is to create a world of friendship. He writes, “If life, mine or that of my fellow man, is not an offering to the other, what are we doing on this earth?”

The Amazing Heart

The heart is both a biological powerhouse as well as the seat of our most deeply felt emotions and cherished connections. The book, The Heartmath Solution, describes that this small, but mighty ten ounce muscle beats one hundred thousand times a day, every day. This equates to approximately forty million times a year. It pumps two gallons of blood per minute through a vascular system about sixty thousand miles in length, which is over two times the circumference of the earth!

But the heart is so much more than a pump. Dr. Stephen Rechtschaffen, author of Time Shifting and co-founder of the Omega Institute, explains it this way, “The heart is a physical object, a rhythmic organ, and love itself. The heart is the central, rhythmic force in the body that shows us how to use the coherent power of love to manage our thoughts and emotions. Like a pebble that creates a ripple of waves when dropped into a still pond, so love and positive feelings in the heart create a rhythm that spreads health and well-being throughout the body.”

The Benefits of Friendship

Precisely because the heart is the seat of this interconnection between mind, body, and spirit, the ability to develop close relationships is as essential to our health as nutrition, physical fitness and stress management.

A study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology followed 3,000 nurses with breast cancer. Researchers found that women without close friends were 4 times as likely to die from the disease during the study as women with 10 or more friends. Notably, living close by or the amount of contact with a friend was not associated with survival. Simply having friends was protective. The benefits of friendship are many. The social support that friendship provides is indispensable when facing the challenges of daily living. Whether we are sharing our joys, confiding our grief, or reveling in camaraderie, friendship provides us with a safe port in the storm of everyday life. Friends stay with us before, during, and after both the peaks of the good times and the valleys of the tough times.

From Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, to Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud (We found love right where we are), countless songwriters over the ages have captured the love, trust, and fidelity that is at the heart of friendship. While we might have met by chance, lasting friendships are forged over time through the reciprocity of consistent care, attention, companionship, and loyalty.

Characteristics of Friendships That Flourish

It’s Not a Secret: You Matter to Me

No matter how busy we get, no matter how demanding our obligations become, we reserve space and time for our friends. We let each other know that we are on the high priority list. A good friend is the first one we think of to call with happy news. It’s also their voice at the other end of the line that we desperately need to hear when bad news comes our way. Our word is our promise. When we say we will be there, we show up, no matter what. We are ready and willing to stand by one another in the good times, the bad times, and everything in between.

Jealous Free Zone

True friends are thrilled by your success. We are not jealous of each other’s accomplishments. We want the best for one another. We revel in and brag about each other’s triumphs. We jump at each opportunity to celebrate each other’s wins. If we do feel pangs of sadness or disappointment in ourselves because we have not yet achieved the same, we can recognize that those feelings are human and must be compassionately dealt with separate from our friend’s good news.

Honesty is Never Brutal

Trusted friends are the ones we rely upon to tell us the truth. While life can feel brutal at times, our friends find a way to cushion the blow with compassion while also managing to not block or whitewash the truth in any way. They hold the lamp of our strengths lit while they companion us through our shadow times. When we temporarily lose our way, they stick close by to remind us that we have not lost their love or ourselves.

Bully-Free Respectful Boundaries

When disagreements happen, when we inevitably disappoint or hurt each other, we turn toward one another, not away. We don’t push each other around emotionally by insisting that our viewpoint is the only correct one. While we may need some time and space to lick our wounds, we stay in respectful contact so neither of us has to additionally feel the worry and fear of abandonment. We continue to check in with each other to determine when we can feel mutually strong enough to have the hard conversation. We talk, we listen, and we compromise. We agree that no issue has the right to trump our care for and kindness toward one another.

Friendship lifts us up. In this ever-changing life, it is central to our sense of grounded-ness, belonging, and global well-being. Our friends help us to keep life flowing, growing, and expanding.

Distance Doesn’t Matter

Life detours, evolving career paths, and relocation of families often create physical distance. When this occurs we certainly miss the sweet proximity of a dear friend. However, by dedicating ourselves to staying in contact, even though weeks, months, or even years pass by, when we do see each other it’s like no time has passed at all. My friend Vicki lives in Hawaii. I live in Pennsylvania. For the past 30 years we have made it a priority to stay in close touch. When we call to talk we cover the highlights of our days, but what I treasure most is the exchanging of the everyday stuff of our lives. We share and swap stories. We wrestle topics to the ground. Sometimes we cry together. We also laugh at things no one else would probably understand or find funny. Although we see each other infrequently, the thousands of miles between us have only served to make me more appreciative of her and this precious friendship. Together we share the determination to bridge the distance by staying connected heart to heart.

The Joy of Friendship

Friendship lifts us up. In this ever-changing life, it is central to our sense of grounded-ness, belonging, and global well-being. Our friends help us to keep life flowing, growing, and expanding. We rely on them to be our witness and historian, our co-conspirators, and co-celebrants. They keep us honest by never shying away from difficult subjects. They fight with us, but they always call back. They don’t allow us to miss out on our lives by falling asleep to our priorities and gifts. They need us as much as we need them. Not just during Heart Month, but every single day of the year, we appreciate and celebrate our cherished friendships. They are like our breathing…life-giving and life-sustaining.

“And in the sweetness of friendship

Let there be laughter and the sharing of pleasures.

For in the dew of little things

The heart finds its morning and is refreshed”.                                                                                     

-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet  

How has sharing friendship impacted your life?

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

Better Health Begins With You...

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