Health Spiral: Feel good↔be social↔improve health

Improving your health might be as simple as learning to be a better friend.  A study published in Psychological Science in May of 2013 shed some light on the interaction between improved social connectedness and potential changes in objective physical health measures.

Researchers taught one group of participants to meditate using loving kindness meditation, a practice known to increase feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward self and others.  A control group was put on a wait list and did not learn the meditative technique.  

The results: the intervention group experienced increases in their feelings of social connectedness which translated into improved vagal tone.  Because vagal tone is an objective measurement and low vagal tone is linked to high inflammation and predicts future cardiovascular problems, the researchers felt its measurement could be used to objectively measure a resulting physical health outcome.

There is strong support in the psychological literature linking positive emotions with increased social connectedness and increased social connectedness with improved health.  Generally speaking, people who experience more positive emotions show more prosocial behavior including greater inclusiveness, perspective taking, self disclosure, personal trust, and other centered focus.  Additionally, prospective based studies have shown strong links between social connectedness and improved long term health outcomes including reduced susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, infections, and possibly even cancer.

While there is ample evidence to suggest that positive social connections can improve health outcomes, it is difficult to objectively measure health improvements as a result of such interventions.  As a result, observing a change in an objective health measure such as vagal tone is an important step toward demonstrating the impact our psychological state has on our overall physical health. 

The bottom line: physical health and mental health are intimately linked depending upon one another for optimal function.  When we feel good we are more likely to connect with others socially and this connection is likely to improve our overall health.  Now go make a friend!   

Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., et al. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science. 24, 1123–1132