Why do people who have warm relationships and frequently experience positive emotions live longer, healthier lives and suffer fewer heart attacks and colds?
Recent research by psychology professors Barbara L. Frederickson and Bethany Kok points to the vagus nerve, a literal mind-body connection that starts in the brain and winds through the neck, branching into the chest and abdominal cavities. (See illustration on right.)
The vagus nerve sends signals to the heart, telling it to slow down during calm moments. People with healthy vagal tone have a subtle increase in heart rate while inhaling and a slightly decreased heart rate while exhaling. Higher vagal tone helps your body regulate your cardiovascular, glucose and immune response.
Dr. Frederickson and Dr. Kok found that people with high vagal tone not only have better physical health, but they're better at stopping bad feelings from getting overblown. So feeling good can help you from feeling bad.
In one study, half the participants, randomly chosen, attended a six-week workshop to learn how to cultivate warmer interpersonal connections using an ancient meditation technique known as metta, or, lovingkindness. After six weeks, the meditators felt more upbeat and socially connected—and they had increased their vagal tone.
"In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa," Frederickson writes in the New York Times. "This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart's capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of 'use it or lose it.' If you don't regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you'll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.
"When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It's micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.
"If you don't regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good. . . . So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You'll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don't let friends lose their capacity for humanity."
Visit The Loft at Wellbody Academy and be sure to check out Who Do You Turn To... a cool way to reflect on your social network by creating a personalized collage about your friends and family with a computer interactive that asks you thought-provoking questions about your relationships: Who could you talk to if you're upset? Who could you call if you needed a ride? Who confides their hopes, dreams and fears in you?