When we think about the emotion of love, we usually think of people. We love our friends, our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

But what about other “loves” in our lives? For example, I love chocolate, hiking, and dining with friends. Does feeling that love for things and experiences make any difference to our well-being, just like our love of other people does?

According to a new study, it may—depending on what you love.

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Researcher Hannah Lucas and her colleagues asked a large group of adults to list things they loved that were not people. Their answers fell into five distinct categories: material things (like money or mobile phones), things that brought hedonic pleasure (like a hot shower or laughing), physical exercise (like participating in sports), spiritual things (like faith in a higher power), and social connection activities (like having a meal with family).

The researchers then created a questionnaire using 61 of those things—some from each category—and asked another set of participants to report how much they loved (or merely liked) each item on the list. Then, the participants filled out surveys measuring their happiness, life satisfaction, and meaning in life.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that two categories of “loves” mattered: social activities and physical activity. Specifically, people who loved social activities had higher happiness and meaning in life, and people who loved physical activity had higher happiness, meaning, and satisfaction.

Lucas was pretty stunned by the findings—especially the findings around physical activity.

“The presence of meaning with physical activity was a surprise, because I didn’t really see the connection at first,” she says.

But Lucas eventually started to understand how people attach meaning to physical activity. They engage in exercise to look fit and to keep themselves feeling physically and mentally healthy, she says, and these values are likely meaningful to them.

It’s clearer why enjoying social activities could be good for us, since strong social relationships have long been shown to improve our health and happiness. But Lucas is unsure why people who loved social activities didn’t have higher life satisfaction.

“It could be that life satisfaction is more of a long-term, global measure,” she says. “If you consider the kinds of social experiences people said they loved—like enjoying a conversation with a loved one—you can see how they might yield happiness and be meaningful, but by themselves wouldn’t lead to life satisfaction. It may simply require more to be satisfied with your life.”

Interestingly, some of the other categories predicted people’s well-being, too, but not after other “loves” were accounted for. For example, people who loved spiritual things felt a greater sense of meaning in life, but that apparent link disappeared once researchers took into account how much they also loved physical exercise or social activities.

“Spirituality is a meaningful thing,” says Lucas. “But if someone has those other things going on—love of physical exercise or social activities—they predict meaning more powerfully.”

A similar finding was true of pleasurable experiences: People who loved those were happier, but that could be explained by other, more impactful loves.

Loving material things didn’t seem to matter to well-being, except in one case: 18 to 19 year olds who loved material objects were more likely to be searching for meaning. Perhaps this makes sense, since younger people who are forming a sense of who they are tend to be more interested in getting access to things they don’t have yet—like a car to get to work or a computer to use in school, says Lucas.   

Of course, all of these findings cannot prove cause and effect, that we’re happier because of the things we love. In fact, they raise the question: Couldn’t other factors not measured in the study be the true causes? Absolutely, says Lucas—this was a single study, and it’s just the “tip of the iceberg” for this line of research.

Still, she says, it’s important research to pursue. For one, it may help us to know that learning to love physical exercise and social activities could be beneficial to our well-being. For another, many experts talk about relationships as key to well-being but don’t consider those people who have trouble meeting or connecting with others—perhaps because they live in sparsely populated areas or just have difficulties with social skills. Her research could bring them some comfort.

“They want to have good lives, too, and it’s useful to know that other things can make your life good and meaningful and positive while you’re figuring out how to connect” she says. “I think that’s valuable.”

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