Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

You Can Get Over Loneliness

Meditation on love can improve your ability to create moments of connection.

 "All you need is love," goes the song.

But what if you think you don't have anyone to love, or love isn't going well with the people you have?

Meditate on love.

In her new book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson defines love as "a "micro-moment of positivity resonance."

Such "micro-moments" can occur in a good conversation.

To study those moments, Princeton University's Uri Hasson and his team recorded a young woman rambling in a fun way about her high school prom. Participants in the study listened to the recording while their brains were scanned. The researchers then asked the participants to retell the story--on the logic that a good listener would probably have enjoyed an actual conversation with the high school student.

It turned out that some listener's brains mirrored those of the storyteller after a short time lag. Other listeners synchronized with the story-teller--they didn't need any time at all to take in the story. And in some lovely but rare cases, listeners who were truly tuned in anticipated the story-teller's brain.

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In short, brains record who is a great listener.

And those "micro-moments" happen when brains sync up.

Oxytocin, the bonding hormone that floods our bodies during sex--or when parents make eye contact with their babies--spikes during micro-moments.

Then there's your vagus nerve, which, as Fredrickson explains, "stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person. It even adjusts the miniscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track her voice against any background noise."

The vagus nerve's potential for love can be measured as "vagal tone." People who have a high "vagal tone" can regulate their bodies better in any number of ways, and they are more loving and social. In research from her lab, Fredrickson found that people with high vagal tone report more micro-moments in their days.

 Her wonderful news is that Buddhists are right: meditation works. You can improve your vagal tone by meditating on love and kindness, and according to Frederickson's study, it takes only one hour a week for a few months to produce measurable changes.

 What do you do? Sit in silence and repeat phrases to yourself wishing another person love, peace, and strength.

 The result is that you'll experience more micro-moments and will impmrove your own health. High vagal tone is linked to lower risk of diabetes, stroke and other diseases.

 Cultivating your ability to connect and create micro-moments is more realistic than seeking a soul mate. And the more micro-moments you have, the better you'll function. 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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