“Joy and Temperance and Repose
Slam the door on the doctor’s nose.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Most people recognize the multitude of connections between nutrition, exercise, and physical health. It’s easy to see how the nutrients we put into our bodies and the activities we perform impact our overall physical wellness. Perhaps it’s simpler for us to accept these connections because nutrition, exercise, and physical health are tangible in ways that emotions simply are not.
You can taste the difference between foods, you can feel your body in motion, and you can sense physical malaise. When you have eaten poorly one day, you may notice unpleasant physical consequences… when you finish a good workout, you may feel a natural high from a rush of endorphins. It can be more difficult to pinpoint the impact of emotions on your overall health and wellness.
Even though emotions aren’t experienced in the same way as physical sensations, you probably have a hunch that persistent emotional states can have a significant effect on your physical health. Perhaps you’ve experienced bouts of sadness followed by physical ailments… or maybe there have been times when you’ve been filled with joy and your physical health has felt at its peak.
If you’re like most people, you probably want to improve your overall health and wellness without having to go on an extreme diet or grueling boot-camp. It is possible to improve physical well-being without taking extreme measures. One way to do just that is through a mindfulness practice called loving-kindness meditation.
Increased Positive Emotions
Loving-kindness meditation is a contemplative practice focused on self-generated emotions of compassion, love, and goodwill toward oneself and others. A recent study (Kok et al., 2013) found that individuals who regularly practiced loving-kindness meditation for approximately 2 months experienced significant increases in self-reported positive emotions, such as joy, awe, and gratitude.
Stronger Social Connectedness
Not only did the group practicing loving-kindness meditation experience more positive emotions, they also reported a stronger sense of social connectedness. Researchers noted that individuals in the loving-kindness meditation group perceived themselves as being closer and more “in tune” with others during social interactions.
Improved Physical Health
One way of assessing general physical wellness is through measuring vagal tone, which is reflective of cardiovascular health. The individuals in the loving-kindness meditation group demonstrated significant improvements in vagal tone by the end of the study. These improvements to the meditating group’s overall physical health were thought to result from the cumulative effect of loving-kindness meditation, increased positive emotions, and greater perceived social connectedness.
In sum, regular loving-kindness meditation leads to increases in daily positive emotions and a greater sense of social connectedness, which in turn leads to improved physical health. We’ve known for some time about various ways to improve physical health through physical methods, such as nutrition and exercise. Now we can extend our repertoire for increasing health and wellness to the self-generation of positive emotions through loving-kindness meditation.
“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, which in turn opens people up to more and more rewarding positive emotional and social experiences. Over time, this self-sustaining upward spiral of growth appears to improve physical health” (Kok et al., 2013, p. 9).
Research continues to mount in support of the wealth of benefits associated with mindfulness practices (e.g., stress reduction, reduced emotional reactivity, and relationship satisfaction). Loving-kindness meditation is just one way to derive these benefits in your own life. If you’re ready to begin or build upon your current mindfulness practice, consider integrating loving-kindness meditation as a part of your regular routine. You might just notice a chain of positive emotional, relational, and physical changes as a result.
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- Free Guided Meditations (UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center)
- Loving-kindness Practice (Psychology Today)
- Metta Meditation Video
Klein, L. (2013). How Positive Emotions Improve Our Health. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_positive_emotions_improve_our_health
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B. … Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science.
Winerman, L. (2012). Changing Our Brains, Changing Ourselves. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/brains.aspx
Featured image: Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place… by thephotographymuse / CC BY 2.0