The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Social Connectivity Drives the Engine of Well-Being

Social connections are an essential psychological nutrient.

Researchers have discovered that social connectivity is a psychological nutrient that drives well-being. In a May 2013 study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers found that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) triggered a cascade of health benefits. The article is titled, How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.

The research, led by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, also found it is possible for a person to self-generate positive emotions through compassion training in ways that make him or her physically healthier. Researchers at the UW-Madison confirmed in a May 2013 study that practicing loving-kindness meditation changes brain structure in a way that cultivates empathy and altruism.

"People tend to liken their emotions to the weather, viewing them as uncontrollable," says Fredrickson. "This research shows not only that our emotions are controllable, but also that we can take the reins of our daily emotions and steer ourselves toward better physical health."

The Vagus Nerve and Social Connectivity

The vagus nerve is a central component of our parasympathetic nervous system. Healthy vagal tone signals your body to click into  the "Tend-and-Befriend / Rest-and-Digest’ mode and turns off the "Fight-or-Flight" mechanism driven by the sympathetic nervous system.

To study the bodily effects of loving-kindness meditation on an individual's ability to up-regulating positive emotions, Frederickson and Kok observed how well the vagus nerve was functioning in various individuals. A higher vagal tone is linked to activation of the vagus nerve and parasympathetic response.

Individuals with higher vagal tone have been found to be better at self-regulating emotions. The researchers speculated that higher vagal tone was directly linked to someone’s ability to experience more positive emotions which would increase positive social connections. Having more social connections would in turn increase vagal tone, thereby improving physical health and creating an positive cycle and "upward spiral" that fueled itself.  

To examine whether people could tap into this upward spiral to steer themselves toward better health, Kok, Fredrickson, and their colleagues conducted a longitudinal field experiment.

Half of the study participants were randomly assigned to attend a 6-week loving-kindness meditation (LKM) course in which they learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward themselves and others. They were asked to practice meditation at home, but how often they meditated was up to them. The other half of the participants remained on a waiting list for the course.

The Four Steps to Loving-Kindness Meditation

The typical technique for loving-kindness meditation is to spend time each day sitting quietly and sending compassion and loving-kindness to four categories of people in a sequence. First, you focus on sending compassionate thoughts to a loved one or someone whom you easily feel compassion for, like a friend or family member. Secondly, you send compassion and forgiveness towards yourself. Thirdly, you meditate on empathy for a random stranger or group of people who is suffering. Lastly, you direct loving-kindness to someone you have a conflict with or find difficult.

When practicing LKM focus on sending compassionate thoughts and loving energy to each group coupled with phrasing such as, "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease."

Each day, for 61 consecutive days, participants in both groups of the Fredrikson, Kok study reported their "meditation, prayer, or solo spiritual activity," their emotional experiences, and their social interactions within the last day. Their vagal tone was assessed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the study.

The data provided clear evidence to support the hypothesized upward spiral, with perceived social connections serving as the link between positive emotions and health.

Participants in the LKM group who entered the study with higher vagal tone showed steeper increases in positive emotions over the course of the study. As participants' positive emotions increased, so did their reported social connections. And, as social connections increased, so did vagal tone. In contrast, participants in the wait-list group showed virtually no change in vagal tone over the course of the study.

"The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health," Fredrickson explains.

Conclusion: Loneliness is Bad for Your Health

The researchers believe, “these findings add another piece to the physical health puzzle, suggesting that positive emotions may  essential psychological nutrient that builds health, just like getting enough exercise and eating leafy greens."

There is a direct connection between social isolation, loneliness, and a potential downward spiral towards poor health. John Cacioppo is a University of Chicago social psychologist and neurocientist who studies the biological effects of loneliness. Cacioppo has found that loneliness is linked to dramatic increases in the stress hormone cortisol, hardening of the arteries (which leads to high blood pressure), inflammation in the body, and can diminish executive function, learning, and memory.

Human beings are social creatures. We need to maintain social connectivity to maintain physical health and longevity. In a Facebook era—where we are often only connected via a digital interface—it is extremely important that each of us make a conscious effort to create and maintain close-knit human bonds and a strong sense of community. Yes, any social network will benefit your health to a degree. . . but, biologically we need face-to-face contact and intimate human connections to engage biological systems that have evolved for millennia to preserve our well-being.

Barbara Frederickson concludes, "Given that costly chronic diseases limit people's lives and overburden healthcare systems worldwide, this is a message that applies to nearly everyone, citizens, educators, health care providers, and policy-makers alike."

If you'd like to learn more about the vagus nerve, please check out my Psychology Today blog "The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure." For more on loving-kindness meditation check out, "Compassion Can Be Trained."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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