In his book Love and Survival, Dean Ornish, a physician known for his work in reversing heart disease, speaks about the power of love and intimacy. “I am not aware,” he writes, “of any other factor in medicine — not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery — that has a greater impact on our quality of life, the incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes.”

Ornish states that loneliness and isolation increase the likelihood that we may engage in harmful behaviors such as smoking and overeating, that we may get certain diseases or die prematurely and that we will not fully experience the joy of everyday life. “In short,” he observes, “anything that promotes a sense of isolation often leads to illness and suffering. Anything that promotes a sense of love and intimacy, connection and community, is healing.” Research from the University of California at Irvine reinforces this point. Its studies indicate that loneliness and lack of emotional support could cause a threefold increase in the odds of being diagnosed with a heart condition. Interestingly, the study also showed that having just one person available for emotional support was enough to reduce the risk of heart disease.

“And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion who will help him.’” — Genesis 2:18 (NLT)

ABC News carried the story of a small Indian woman on a worldwide hugging tour. Her name is Mata Amritanadamayi, but some have simply dubbed her the “hugging saint.” According to the best estimates, Mata has hugged more than 20 million people in countries all across the globe. And she shows no signs of slowing down. On her stops in American cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Boston, thousands of people line up to be embraced by a complete stranger. When asked where she gets all her energy, she replies, “It takes no energy to love. It is easy.”

“True friends are those who really know you but love you anyway.” — Edna Buchanan

Reporter Buck Wolf described his experience with the woman many affectionately call Amma or Mother. “Here I am, in the deep embrace of a stranger. She folds me into her arms, coos into my ear, and gently kisses my temple . . . ‘My son, my son, my son,’ she says, rocking me back and forth. ‘Love you, love you, love you.’ I look around me. Here are fellow New Yorkers — rich, educated and hardened. Why do these people wait for hours?”

“I’m not religious,” a 28-year-old banker tells me. “I saw her four years ago in Houston. Now I go to her every chance I get. She may be just an old woman who hugs. But there is some beauty in this. Maybe we have to appreciate our need to hug and be hugged — to care for each other.”

People know when they’re cared for — when they’re loved. And people who are cared for and loved heal more quickly.