Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Director of the Social Psychology Doctoral Program and the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, President-Elect, International Positive Psychology Association Kenan-Flagler School of Business
Now that you've been exposed to the ancient practice of
loving-kindness meditation, I want to share with you the very
recent scientific evidence that my team and I have on how it can change you.
In these studies, we first gather objective, health related biological
measures from our study volunteers by measuring their echocardiogram or
drawing a sample of their blood.
Then, we randomly assign each one to either learn
loving-kindness meditation or not.
Then about three months later they visit our lab again and
we again capture their echocardiogram, or draw a second blood sample.
This is how we test the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions at
the biological level.
Let's get started then with week five.
So you've had a bit of a taste of what loving-kindness meditation is, is like.
I'd like to dive into this week what we've learned from the science,
about how that affects people, how that practice affects people.
And you know, I don't think this is necessarily just about
that particular practice.
But like creating opportunities and experiences in your daily life where that,
more of those kinds of emotions and connections come into play.
I mean, there are other, other doorways in,
but that's the one that we've used in our research.
But take a moment to think about, you know,
when you really connect with somebody.
When you really, you know,
these micro-moments of positivity resonance that we've been talking about.
If, when you're truly in sync with somebody, in,
in what ways do you feel that?
I mean, where, how is it, is that experience embodied?
I mean, is it, is it something that's sort of an abstract?
Like, you just, like, oh yeah, we connected.
Or is it, yeah, we connected and how would you describe that?
>> I would say it's really difficult to describe.
For me personally, it's hard to put my finger on what it is but
sometimes you just like, I really clicked with that person and,
and I think a lot of it, you know that eye contact, that synchrony and
the things you talked about with positivity resonates.
>> Uh-huh. >> It's a lot of that but
I think, usually I think it's just this instinct almost.
>> Yeah, yeah, yeah.
>> I'm not sure if ya'll have similar?
>> Yeah, it's kind of energizing.
>> Yeah. >> You know,
there's something that's like this uplift, this energizing peace to it.
>> I was going to say the physiology, physiology of it.
The warm, the body temperature, the the warmness.
>> The smiling.
>> Yeah. >> All of that.
You just feel this connection that, to me it is all about vibrations and energy.
>> Yeah. >> But, definitely.
>> So something energizing, something connected.
It's, it's happening again,
not just in an abstract way of connecting, but in a, yeah?
>> It's, it's like life-affirming and heart-opening.
It's like you were saying, it's really energetic thing.
Just really feeling that, feels like love.
>> It's kind of being filled with love.
>> Yeah, it, it, I think there's, it,
it's interesting when you think about life giving.
It's just kind of like this if,
if these micro-moments of connection are really working as nutrients.
Nutrients give us life.
They give us energy.
So these little emotional connections I think also give us life and
give us energy.
You know, sometimes when we think about love and hearts, we kind of think of
cartoon hearts like Valentine's Day, or you know greeting cards or something.
But you know one of the main things that we've looked at, is how these experiences
of connection cultivated through practices like love and
kindness meditation affect the physical heart, affect the real heart.
And not just in terms of a momentary flutter, you know, but in terms
of like the stable rhythms of healthy efficient functioning of the heart.
And then, in particular, we've spent a lot of time looking at the vagus nerve.
I'll give you a little image of where the vagus nerve is.
It emerges deep within your brainstem and
connects your brain to your heart, literally.
It is the tie between your brain and your heart.
And, and also connects your brain to other internal organs as well.
And we've gotten interested in it because the vagus nerve is
really implicated in both psychological health and in physical health.
And so it seems like maybe it's the intersection between the two.
One of the things the vagus nerve does is it
helps calm your racing heart after a fright.
So, if you get really startled and then you need something to calm down,
that's your vagus nerve at work, calming you down afterwards.
But, when your vagus nerve is functioning especially well,
it also slows your heart just a little bit, every time you exhale.
So that it, it creates this healthy rhythm to your heart, where, when you're,
when you're breathing in fresh oxygen, your heart speeds up a little bit and
when you're breathing out no more fresh oxygen in those moments,
your heart takes a little breather in a way, you know, with, with the exhale.
And so that rhythm,
that variability in heart rate is sometimes called cardiac vagal tone.
It's interesting to scientists, this, this measure,
because, it's been related not only to cardiovascular health, you know,
it's related, you know, it actually is one of the things that a physician measures,
after someone has had a heart attack to see their prospects for recovery.
And it's, so
it predicts the cardiovascular system's ability to regulate itself.
it, it predicts the body's ability to regular glucose, our blood sugar, as well.
It predicts the body's ability to regulate inflammation and so it's, it's vitally
involved in a number of different aspects of, of routine healthy functioning.
So that's on the physical health side.
On the, psychological health side,
people who have more of this healthy rhythm in their heart, or
higher cardiac vagal tone, they're better able to regulate their attention.
Better able to regulate their emotions.
And because of those two, we think it's they're better able to
navigate social situations, you know, have better social skill.
And one of the things that one of my former doctoral students Bethany Cook
has found in her early work is that there's a, there's an upward spiral that
goes on between people's cardiac vagal tone and their positivity resonance.
Or their ability to experience these, micro moments of positive connection.
We know that if we measure,
individual differences in this healthy rhythm of the heart, cardiac vagal tone.
It predicts how much, in day to day life,
people experience these micro moments of connection.
That's actually consistent with the, the existing literature.
That if you're able to regulate your attention and
emotions that's going to help you connect with people better.
What, what's new, what we hadn't seen in the literature before was that your day to
day experiences of positivity, resonance and
connection predict improvements a season later in your cardiac vagal tone.
So we've seen this kind of upward spiral connection where,
you know, there's this marker of physical health that predicts how much
connection that you can experience day to day with people.
And then that how much connection you have contributes to
this improving this marker of physical health.
Now this was in a correlational study where we're just measuring you know,
where people stand on this and how they change over time.
We wanted to take this further, by doing a randomized controlled trial,
where we randomly assigned people to
experience more of these micro-moments of connection in daily life.
And we did that by, you know, teaching them this loving-kindness meditation that
you've already had a bit of experience with.
And so I want to describe to you a study where we had 65 employees
of this university, employees faculty and staff, volunteered to be in this study.
And we randomly assigned them either to learn this meditation technique as part of
the study, or they learned it later after the study was over.
And what we did was have people come visit our positive emotions and
psychophysiology lab over in the department of psychology and
we measured their cardiac vagal tone before the study ever started.
study they completed measures of their emotions daily, with like, just like
with that positivity self test that, that you all did same measure actually.
And they also reported how close and
attuned they felt with the people they connected with that day.
So people, you know, kind of think back to your three longest connections of the day,
how attuned and how connected did you feel.
So we had this, kind of proxy measure of this positivity resonance.
And what we found here is that we're able to
kind of budge or nudge this upward spiral that where you know,
people who are meditating, are experiencing more positive emotions.
That's in line with the studies that you know, our lab had done previously, and
I shared with you.
And here we found that, you know, the more positive emotions people experienced in
day to day life, the more of these micro moments of connection, or
this you know, feeling connected and attuned people had.
And that led to increases over a season in their cardiac vagal tone.
And actually there were two things that
predicted people's positive emotion experiences and connection.
It was not just the, that fact of whether they were in the meditation workshop or
not, it was their starting levels of cardiac vagal tone.
So tho, those two together kind of
predicted what kind of profile people would be on.
So people who started the study with higher cardiac vagal tone
got more positive emotions out of it, had more connection,
it's kind of like their, their spiral was moving along a little faster.
But the, the key part of this study is that the random assignment involved in it,
you know, allows us to, to know that it's you know, when people
make the effort to self generate more of this, you know, warm other focus that,
that changes things in their daily experiences with other people.
And it changes the very rhythms of their heart, I mean the,
the beat to beat rhythms of their heart become more efficient, more effective.
I, I mean, it's, it's changing this very core aspect of our,
of our physiology and, and being.
So there's this real domino effect going on.
So this the, the, the sentiments
that you're able to generate in a practice like loving kindness or
other practices that help you feel more connected.
They're, they're not just these ephemeral, fleeting good experiences.
They are, they are those things, but
they also have this like deep effect on the body and, and health.
So when you say, these experiences are energizing or, or, enlivening.
You know, so there's ways that the science is beginning to show us
just exactly how energizing and, and life giving they are, so.
>> I think that's really cool how you mentioned that when we
talk about positive emotions as in nutrients and this shows almost you know,
when you eat healthy fruits and vegetables you can see how your body changes in
a good way, same with positive emotions.
>> Yeah. >> Your body is physically changing,
your vagus nerve is changing, getting better,
is that a good way to think about it?
>> Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I mean not only is it energizing in the moment, and
it has it's own feeling, creating moments that have that energy and that sense of
alive and connection is feeding us in the direction towards health.
So yeah, thanks for
bringing back that analogy, because I think it really fits here.
>> Is it a positive or
negative, so does negative emotion then cause problems with this system?
>> Yeah, I mean we- >> Right, and
there's no neutral I guess, it's either a positive or negative kind of experience?
>> Well I think that anything that we experience frequently in
terms of emotional tone, ends up kind of changing us.
>> It's sort of like, you are what you eat, you know,
in terms of you know, if you, if you eat a lot of unhealthy food,
that's eventually going to kind of change your body's capacities.
I think a, you know, a negative, all emotions are good for us.
>> Mm-hm. >> I don't want to say negative
emotions are bad but it's really depends on their fit to the circumstance.
And when negative emotions become prolonged and excessive and
so, so, kind of a way of life instead of a reaction to a temporary situation,
that's when they definitely are related to changes in
the way the heart functions and, and you know, body systems.
So you know, we know that stress and illness are closely connected and it's
the emotional piece that kind of helps you know build the pathway between them.
>> Yeah. I think the people make that assumption,
negative emotions cause problems, but I don't think they make
the assumption about positive emotion having an effect on health either.
And, and psychology has worked so
many more decades on the negative emotions causing problems.
And their you know, those effects are large and prevalent and worthy of study.
And, but in a way they kind of eclipsed attention to this subtler positive side.
So, positive psychology just kind of, you know,
addresses that imbalance in the field, being exclusively focused on problems and
disease to opportunities and, and the real positive side of health.