The Biology of Kindness: How It Makes Us Happier and Healthier

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There’s a reason why being kind to others is good for you — and it can now be traced to a specific nerve.

When it comes to staying healthy, both physically and mentally, studies consistently show that strong relationships are at least as important as avoiding smoking and obesity. But how does social support translate into physical benefits such as lower blood pressure, healthier weights and other physiological measures of sound health? A new study published in Psychological Science suggests that the link may follow the twisting path of the vagus nerve, which connects social contact to the positive emotions that can flow from interactions.

(MORE: Q&A: Jon Kabat-Zinn Talks About Bringing Mindfulness Meditation to Medicine)

The researchers, led by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recruited 65 members of the university’s faculty and staff for a study on meditation and stress. Roughly half were randomly assigned to take an hour-long class each week for six weeks in “lovingkindness” meditation, which involves focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about yourself and others.

In the class, the participants were instructed to sit and think compassionately about others by starting to contemplate their own worries and concerns and then moving out to include those of more of their social contacts. People were taught to silently repeat phrases like “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease,” and keep returning to these thoughts when their minds wandered. They were also advised to focus on these thoughts, and on other people, in stressful situations like when they were stuck in traffic. “It’s kind of softening your own heart to be more open to others,” says Fredrickson.

The group not assigned to the meditation class was placed on a waiting list for a future class. For 61 days, all the participants logged their daily amount of meditation and prayer (those in the class were encouraged to practice every day) as well as their most powerful experiences of positive and negative emotions. They were also tested before starting the six-week class and again after completing it on their heart-rate variability, which is a measure of how “toned,” or responsive, the vagus can be.

The vagus regulates how efficiently heart rate changes with breathing and, in general, the greater its tone, the higher the heart-rate variability and the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease and other major killers. It may also play a role in regulating glucose levels and immune responses.

In addition, and relevant to the study, the vagus is intimately tied to how we connect with one another — it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.

More of the meditators than those on the waiting list showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope after completing the class. And these emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others — as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart-rate variability, particularly for those whose vagal tone was already high at the start of the study.

“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion, and that helps us get at a long-standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” says Fredrickson.

(MORE: Relax!  It’s Good for Your Genes)

Simply meditating, however, didn’t always result in a more toned vagus nerve. The change only occurred in meditators who became happier and felt more socially connected; for those who meditated just as much but didn’t report feeling any closer to others, there was no change in the tone of the vagal nerve. “We find that the active ingredients are two psychological variables: positive emotion and the feeling of positive social connection,” she says. “If the practice of lovingkindness didn’t budge those, it didn’t change vagal tone.”

More research is needed to determine how large these changes can be and if they can be sustained, as well as how the feelings of social connectedness interact with compassionate meditation. But, Fredrickson says, “We’ve had a lot of indirect clues that relationships are healing. What’s exciting about this study is that it suggests that every [positive] interaction we have with people is a miniature health tune-up.” Being a good friend, and being compassionate toward others, may be one of the best ways to improve your own health.

38 comments
DuffMcDuffee
DuffMcDuffee

Perhaps empathy is endangered because we feel the need to justify kindness to others based on "what's in it for me?"

Doing so reinforces an ethical philosophy of egoism and selfishness. We should be kind to others because it is good for others. If it is also good for me, well that's great, but it's not the reason why I ought to be kind.

Geraldo Dias
Geraldo Dias

I think it has something to do about it. To be good towards the others makes you feel confortable and in peace with yourself. Hatred and heartache kills you softly. So, be good!

Huang Jimmy
Huang Jimmy

Kindness to your FB friend probably has the same effects.

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

Faces of kind people is recognizable ,and of the uggly too .Moral of the story if you want to have a pleasant face especially with advancing age then do not be selfish but  worry about the other have  ampatie    !

Nino Andreotti
Nino Andreotti

You've got everything to gain, by being kind!...

Mariz Demafiles-Watt
Mariz Demafiles-Watt

Even small gestures of kindness work wonders. Its very rewarding and it makes u feel good :)

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

Look at the elderly who are not exactly nice and you will see wrinkles setting expressions of wickedness. Moral of the story to age with a better face, in every sense of the term, be good to others and not selfish to complain all the time!

Sandra Ankenbrand
Sandra Ankenbrand

I'm always kind and smiling... makes live easier... but in many parts of this world, especially in 1st world countries in huge cities people get aggressive on that... I don't understand why? Do we really have to tell this to people?

Tara A. Huber
Tara A. Huber

Of course. Kindness is beautiful and essential. I think we need to teach it to boys a little bit more than we do.....

Stephanie Vanderyacht
Stephanie Vanderyacht

If it were common sense, everyone would understand it. That's not the case, not very common.

Faluyi Mogbejuloritse Frank
Faluyi Mogbejuloritse Frank

The Word would always be true. Love, joy, peace, patience, KINDNESS, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. No matter how we humans deviate from it, it would always come back to God's Word.

CarlBrackin
CarlBrackin

Do the Republicans really want to solve our total National Debt Problem?  They had their CHANCE in 2001 to continue with  the tax policies  but they continued with their "master plan" objectives of making sure that the total National Debt more than doubled and also during the Bush eight years our trade deficit more than doubled, with both  reaching a record high AMOUNT during the Cheney/Bush W. eight years.   The increasing of the National debt apparently did not bother the Republicans until President Obama took office in 2009?  Ever since then the enemies of the President  have been putting up a "FARCE FRONT" and BLAMing THE DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENT for not going along with them to create another GREAT DEPRESSION?

It appears that the Republicans are trying to cause their party to die off when we look at the damage they insist on doing gainst the workers or the people who want to work. 

Peace_2_All
Peace_2_All

Enjoyed the article very much.  Pretty much all of the benefits mindful meditation have been known for, well... a 'very' long time.

However, getting the actual neuro-physiological pathways isolated, which also helps validate what we've known.

If more people practiced these things more consistently... it could help to lead to certainly more peace in people's lives and across the world.

Peace...

ElaineMays
ElaineMays

@CarlBrackin REpublicans had a plan all along. They salavated iver the Clinton surplus and started two wars which drew down the surplus and put us in a deficit. So the next step is the starve the beast get rid of all social safety netork programs and privatise as much of government as possible. Close the public schools, privatise Social Security with Wall street. It's called greed and it is boundless. We people in the 1% living like kings and queens and the rest of us are groveling trying to find work,