Paying It Forward: Generativity and Your Vagus Nerve

Vagus nerve survival guide: Phase nine.

Posted Jun 04, 2017

This Psychology Today blog post is the final entry in a nine-part series called "The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide." The primary goal of this series is to educate readers about the incredible power of your vagus nerve to maintain homeostatic balance within the two branches of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) in ways that can help you stay even-keeled both emotionally and physiologically.

Your vagus nerve is the psychophysiological seat of equanimity which is defined as “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a stressful or difficult situation.” The English word equanimity comes from the combination of "aequus" and "animus" from the Latin phrase aequo animo, which translates to "with even mind."

Each of the nine vagal maneuvers I've curated for this series can help you hack into the power of your vagus nerve in ways that will reduce stress, anxiety, anger, violence, and aggression by activating the "relaxation response" of your parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the “fight-or-flight” urges of your sympathetic nervous system.

The final entry of this vagus nerve series is a clarion call for each of us (myself included) to make a commitment to consciously seek daily lifestyle choices that keep your vagus nerve active and engaged. Not only will this benefit your own psychological and physical well-being, it will benefit the well-being of your friends, family, and even total strangers with whom you have 'micro-moments' of positive face-to-face connectedness. Everybody's vagal tone (VT) has the potential to create a ripple effect that influences the ANS and vagus nerve of those you come in contact with. This symbiotic feedback loop begins the moment a baby is born and continues throughout childhood, and into old age.

As I’ve documented extensively throughout this nine-part series, there is a groundswell of empirical evidence which shows that regularly activating the “tend-and-befriend” aspects of the parasympathetic nervous system improves vagal tone and creates an upward spiral of prosocial behaviors that are contagious. Other hallmarks of high vagal tone are wiser reasoning, better emotion regulation, less egocentric-bias, higher levels of empathy, and closer-knit human bonds. 

On the flip side, low vagal tone and a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system is associated with a constant state of “fight-or-flight” and chronically high levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) which can add fuel to the fire of anxiety, fear, and the proclivity to be a rageaholic. Obviously, all of these toxic emotions are also contagious. Luckily, the universal power of the vagus nerve is a common thread that "wanders" through every human body (vagus means "wandering" in Latin). 

Wellcome Library/Public Domain
Early anatomical drawing of the vagus nerve.
Source: Wellcome Library/Public Domain

As a public health advocate and father of a 9-year-old, I’ve been disturbed by what appears to be a collective uptick in sympathetic nervous system activity and lower levels of parasympathetic activity (“tending-and-befriending”) across the United States of America. Increasingly, it seems that we are more defined by our differences than by our commonality. One hope in creating this “Vagus Nerve Companion” series is to galvanize people from all walks of life to begin looking at their knee-jerk reactions of either adoration or animus towards President Trump through the lens of your own personal psychophysiology. My original hypothesis (based on extensive research on the autonomic nervous system) is that Donald J. Trump is a master at pushing people’s buttons in ways that disengage the vagus nerve. Of course, this is speculative, but it seems to me that the level of anger and unbridled fight-or-flight responses coming from people on both sides of the aisle is making lots of people "mad." Today's zeitgeist reminds me of the scene in Network when Peter Finch playing, Howard Beale, goes to the window and screams, “I’m mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.” From a prosocial and life-affirming perspective, the good news is that hacking into your vagus nerve is completely in the locus of your control and is a simple way to combat the psychophysiology of being "mad as hell." The vagal maneuvers prescribed in my nine-part series are something you can do just about anytime and anywhere to stay calm, cool, and collected. Healthy vagal tone is an antidote that can help break this vicious cycle of contagious anger. 

Together, if each of us makes an individual commitment to keep our vagal tone higher, I believe that collectively we can create an upward spiral of less bigotry and hatred across our nation. Vagal maneuvers have the power to curtail and heal the hostility in your heart. (This sentiment may sound kind of new-agey...but the vagus nerve is the direct psychophysiological conduit between your heart and mind.) 

There are lots of recent reports that remind us of the importance of curbing our anger and hatred. For example, the editors of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a letter this weekend detailing various ways that social norms of civility and loving-kindness are fraying across America. The letter gives specific examples and statistics which show that violence, aggression, and hate are on the rise across our nation.

The SPLC article dovetails with the poignant June 2 commentary by David Brooks of the New York Times, who wrote a piece that can also serve as a call to action for all of us to fortify our evolutionary roots of cooperation and goodness. Brooks writes: 

“Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.

People are wired to cooperate. Far from being a flimsy thing, the desire for cooperation is the primary human evolutionary advantage we have over the other animals.

People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples. From their first moments, children are wired to feel each other’s pain. You don’t have to teach a child about what fairness is; they already know. There’s no society on earth where people are admired for running away in battle or for lying to their friends.

People have moral emotions. They feel rage at injustice, disgust toward greed, reverence for excellence, awe before the sacred and elevation in the face of goodness.

People yearn for righteousness. They want to feel meaning and purpose in their lives, that their lives are oriented toward the good. People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness."

When I read this passage by David Brooks yesterday, all I could do was visualize the vagus nerve as being at the heart of driving “universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples.” There are countless clinical studies that support this correlation. 

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." —John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

Last week, on May 26, I celebrated what would have been the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy by going for an extra long run through the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore (U.S. National Park Service). 

In soaking up the rapture of the natural beauty that surrounded me on the bike trails, I was thanking JFK every inch of the way. And my senses were filled with eternal gratitude to President Kennedy for partnering with Rachel Carson and a bipartisan group in Washington, D.C. to create wildlife sanctuaries that have endured for over half a century. At the time President Kennedy said, “The Nation should set aside shoreline recreational refuges, and ranges must be protected to serve the purposes to which they are dedicated without interference by commercial exploitation.”  

Unfortunately, President Trump announced on June first—just a few days after the anniversary or JFK’s birth a century ago—that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Clearly, this was devastating news for billions of people around the globe. That said, I’m optimistic that we can come together on a grassroots level and unite in other ways to protect and preserve the environment as governors and mayors have already begun to do.

The legendary René Dubos was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, microbiologist, humanitarian, and environmentalist who served as advisor to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Dubos once said,

Think Globally, Act Locally: Our salvation depends upon our ability to create a religion of nature...The wooing of the Earth thus implies much more than converting the wilderness into humanized environments. It means also preserving natural environments in which to experience mysteries transcending daily life."

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

The legacy of JFK will live on for generations to come in immeasurable ways—including his conservationist efforts. I took this snapshot of the dappled light coming through the forest and hitting the entrance sign to the Cape Cod National Seashore while jogging last week in honor of JFK and his environmental generativity. From a vagus nerve perspective, I've included this photo as a signpost for you to check out entry six ("Awe Engages Your Vagus Nerve and Can Combat Narcissism") and eight ("The Psychophysiology of Flow and Your Vagus Nerve") in this series. The research of Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner, Lani Shiota et al. shows that being immersed in nature can create a sense of “smaller self” in ways that open your senses and psychophysiology to the wonder of awe—which improves vagal tone while simultaneously reducing egocentrism.

In closing, Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin attended a seminar led by Erik Erikson when she was a graduate student at Harvard. Goodwin draws on his teaching in her TED lecture, Learning from Past Presidents.During this lecture, Goodwin shares her intimate knowledge of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson to drive home universal truths about how each of us can find fulfillment and inner balance in our lives.

From a climate change standpoint, Johnson has the strongest environmental track record of just about any U.S. President when it came to land conservation and the protection of natural beauty. In terms of generativity, his legacy lives on by the 300+ conservation measures he passed into law that established legal underpinning to keep our nation’s land, water, and air clean.

The main takeaway of Goodwin's lecture on Learning from Past Presidents revolves around Erikson’s concept of generativity, which he described most simply as, "a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation." Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, “Can I make my life count?” (Although, this sentiment or 'existential crisis' can occur at every stage of life.)

Abraham Lincoln is an excellent role model for looking at generativity through the lens of psychophysiology, the vagus nerve, and finding the sweet spot within your ANS. Lincoln was clearly driven by a robust sympathetic response and had the get-up-and-go to accomplish things, but he also had the evenness of temper and prosocial calling to pay it forward. As Goodwin describes:

"Abraham Lincoln's life suggests that fierce ambition is a good thing. He had a huge ambition. But it wasn't simply for office or power or celebrity or fame—what it was for was to accomplish something worthy enough in life so that he could make the world a little better place for his having lived in it.

As he grew older, he developed a certain consolation from an ancient Greek notion—but followed by other cultures as well—that if you could accomplish something worthy in your life, you could live on in the memory of others. Your honor and your reputation would outlive your earthly existence. And that worthy ambition became his lodestar."

Hopefully, the content of this nine-part vagus nerve series will help you identify and fine-tune the sweet spot within your own nervous system. The goal is to have grace under pressure that allows you to hit it out of the park while being sportsmanlike and kindhearted.

As people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jackie Robinson (No. 42) showed the world, the 'gutsy equanimity' of nonviolent resistance is literally marked by having "the guts enough not to fight back." Nonviolence helps to guarantee that your reputation and honor will stay intact for posterity. Again, utilizing your vagus nerve to stay even-keeled and not allowing unbridled vagal tone to derail your own train (by becoming a hothead or losing your temper) is the key to equanimity and maintaining grace under pressure during stressful times.

It may be idealistic and overly optimistic... But, based on extensive empirical and anecdotal evidence, I'm convinced that if each of us makes a small daily effort to improve our vagal tone that it might create an upward spiral that could make the world a slightly better place right here and now. And for generations to come.

For the record: Delivering this message on the vagus nerve and curating these vagal maneuvers for everyday use is part of my personal commitment to generativity and my daughter's generation. Although this nine-part Psychology Today series has come to an end, there is much more to share with you about the vagus nerve. Please stay tuned for updates (and maybe even a book) on this topic in the months and years ahead. Thanks!


Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra, and Joseph Ciarrochi. A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 2016 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00068

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