Being kind to other people is officially good for you – and it seems it’s all down to a nerve that links social contact with positive emotions.
The vagus nerve links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Higher ‘vagal tone’ is also associated with intimacy with others and more altruistic behaviour.
Recent studies suggest that people who regularly practice mindful ‘loving kindness’ meditations, focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about themselves and others, show an increase in positive emotions like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope. The emotional and psychological changes brought about by positive emotion and connectedness to others, seem to correlate with an improvement in vagal function.
The vagus also regulates how our heart rate changes with our breathing so being kind and compassionate to other people could also be a great way to improve your physical health. In general, the greater the vagal tone, the more varied your heart-rate and the lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and other major killers, so every positive interaction you have can have a positive impact on your own health and happiness.