Last fall I took a fabulous free Coursera class, Positive Psychology, taught by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I liked it so much, that I’ve started to read her book Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.
Fredrickson believes that positive emotions are like “nutrients,” and that small doses, or “micro-moments” of positive connection with others over time “broaden and build” us. While negative emotions help us narrow, focus, and solve problems (we need negative emotions too!), positive emotions help us think creatively and become more resourceful and resilient.
She talks a lot about the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve, which connects your brain to lots of parts of your body, including your heart. If something scary happens and your heart starts to race, Frederickson says in Love 2.0:
“[I]t’s your vagus nerve that eventually soothes your racing heart, by orchestrating (together with oxytocin) the equally ancestral calm-and-connect response. . . your vagus nerve is a biological asset that supports and coordinates your experiences of love.”
Vagal tone can be measured by, “tracking your heart rate in conjunction with your breathing rate.” The higher your vagal tone is, the better it is for your heart’s health. According to Fredrickson, your vagal tone is also an indicator of the health of your parasympathetic nervous system and your immune system.
To measure the impact of love, Fredrickson chose study participants at random to learn lovingkindness meditation, a practice where you wish lovingkindness for yourself, people you love, people you feel neutral about, people who challenge you, and the world at large.
Even though the participants only practiced lovingkindness meditation for about an hour each week, over the months their vagal tone increased.
How cool is that?
“Love literally made people healthier.”
You can read a full explanation in this excerpt from Chapter 3 (Love’s Biology) from Love 2.0 on Aeon and the study on PubMed Central at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.
If you want to check out Fredrickson’s free Positive Psychology course on Coursera, the next session starts July 4th.
Photo by me.