How Do Happier People Become Healthier? It's all about social connections

Andrew Porterfield
Happy people are usually healthy people. But how do happy people get healthy? And which came first; the happiness or the health? A new study has found not only the connection between happiness and health, but also a way in which all these positive attributes build upon themselves.

What's the connection? A strong sense of social connections, according to a paper in Psychological Science by Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her team. People who felt basically healthy tended to experience more positive emotions. The more positive emotions people felt about themselves, the more socially connected they felt. Then, positive emotions and social connectedness would just continue to build on each other, in what Frederickson's team called an "upward spiral dynamic."

The researchers make the connection between physical health and positive emotions for the first time. While psychologists have traditionally advised exercise, nutrition and moderating tobacco and alcohol as ways to maintain health and generate a positive attitude, this advice can also now include making friends.

Sixty-five faculty and staff members of the University of North Carolina were asked to practice meditation at home, using the loving-kindness meditation method (LKM), which helps practitioners create feelings of love, compassion and goodwill toward themselves as well as to others (they were told that the meditation would decrease pain).

They were also asked to rate their experiences with positive and negative emotions (joy, interest and love versus anger, fear or guilt). Finally, the participants described the social interactions they had on the same day they were meditating and rating emotions.

To assess physical health, the researchers looked at "vagal tone," consisting of heart rate and respiration, all of which are regulated by the vagus nerve, which extends from the brain and controls basic breathing and heart functions. A strong vagal tone is a measure of physical health popular with psychologists.

The results? People who had superior vagal tone were more likely to have positive emotions about themselves, and these positive emotions were built by perceptions of good social connections. Significantly, people could consciously boost their health by improving social connections. "Recurrent momentary experiences of positive emotions appear to serve as nutrients for the human body, increasing feelings of social belonging and giving a needed boost to parasympathetic health," the researchers wrote 

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