You’ve stopped smoking. You have a good diet. You don’t drink a lot. You exercise. You’re nice and healthy, right? You could be doing more.
You might have been neglecting the vagus nerve. If so, the time has come to start exercising it. You’ll be healthier (and happier) as a result.
The chances are you haven’t even heard of it, but this is a nerve that is crucial to our emotional (and, it turns out, physical) well-being . . .
It’s a nerve that regulates positive emotion in our bodies and one that, according to scientists, ‘is intimately tied to how we connect to one another’. It’s a nerve that turns positive social contact into a warm feeling in our hearts and makes us feel better about our lives. It’s a nerve that, exercised correctly, has potential benefits for us all, both individually and collectively.
The bottom line here is that, following a recent research program in North Carolina, it has been found that being kind to others is good for us. Given the principles that underpin our efforts here at OM®, it should come as no surprise that this has struck quite a chord in our studio.
The scientific details we’ll spare you, in the main because they’re a little on the complicated side. But having spent time monitoring two groups of people – one of which engaged in regular Loving-Kindness Meditation (in which the focus is on warm, compassionate thoughts about yourself and others) and one of which didn’t – the researchers noted a distinct difference.
‘It (the meditation program) is like softening your own heart to be more open to others,’ explains Professor Barbara Fredrickson. The good news is that the principles involved can be applied in all our lives and that the exercises couldn’t be easier.
In stimulating the vagus nerve – which, amongst other things, helps to regulate heart rate and breathing – researchers have discovered that the risk of cardiovascular disease (and other major threats to our physical health) can be lowered. This all, remember, just from being nicer to people and exercising greater kindness.
The vagus nerve can help to release oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding, into our bodies, making us feel closer and more connected to others, and boosting altruistic behavior. This all from a nerve that most people haven’t even heard of, but one that is in us all.
This is, for obvious reasons, a simplified version, an explanation for the layman, but the findings (and their significance to us all) cannot be questioned.
‘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,’ adds Professor Fredrickson. ‘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.’
We don’t want to labor the point, but being kind to others, exercising compassion and thinking positive thoughts makes us healthier in terms both mental and physical. It makes us happier, hopeful and more content. It makes us feel closer to others and more connected to the people around us.
This all thanks to one under-appreciated nerve, a nerve that can be exercised and strengthened just with a little love, with a positive outlook on life and with harmonious thought. Bearing such things in mind, we should all do our utmost to be nicer to each other. It’s good for us, after all.