Upward Spirals of the Heart

June 12, 2017 Carol 2 comments

Positive emotions are good for our health. Shared positive emotions — positive emotions people feel in connection with others —  seem to be a real driving force behind health benefits. In fact, positive social connection forecasts health and longevity every bit as much as does maintaining a healthy body weight and refraining from smoking. And, despite what you might think, we can control our emotions.

Positive psychology has identified a wonderful upward spiral — an upward spiral of positive emotions and health. At the same time that positive emotions engender health, health engenders positive emotions. Because these spirals are driven by social connections, Barbara Fredrickson has called them “upward spirals of the heart.”

Much of the research has zeroed in on the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps regulate heart rate, and “vagal tone” refers to the subtle variation in heart rate as we breathe in and out. When functioning properly, the heart slows down slightly during exhalation. The greater the difference between your heart rate at inhalation and at exhalation, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone predicts cardiovascular health, better immune function, and glucose regulation. Somewhat surprisingly, it also predicts social skills!

Social Connections Drive the Upward Spiral of Positive Emotions and Health

According to one such study, “people who experience warmer, more upbeat emotions may have better physical health because they make more social connections.” The research, led by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences also found “it is possible for a person to self-generate positive emotions in ways that make him or her physically healthier.”

Even prior to this study, researchers knew that people who have higher vagal tone tend to be better at regulating their emotions. So they speculated that “people having higher vagal tone might lead people to experience more positive emotions, which would then boost perceived positive social connections. Having more social connections would in turn increase vagal tone, thereby improving physical health and creating an ‘upward spiral.'”

To test their hypothesis, Fredrickson, Kok, and their colleagues conducted a longitudinal field experiment. You can read the details here. The data provided clear evidence to support the hypothesized upward spiral. “The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health,” Fredrickson explains.


Humans need real-time social connections. Without them, our relationships wither. Our health is damaged. Our biological ability to communicate becomes degraded.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.
Your Phone vs. Your Heart

The most effective social connections occur in real-time, preferably face-to-face. When two people share a positive emotion in each other’s company, a degree of biobehavioral synchrony occurs. This might present itself in a behavioral way— facial mimicry, synchronous body postures and eye movements, etc. Even more remarkable are the biological manifestations. The levels of certain biochemicals rise in unison; there’s a similarity in neural firings. As Barbara Fredrickson says, “a single positive emotion can roll like a wave through two brains and bodies at once.”

Micro-Moments of Love

upward spirals of the heart


Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone;
it has to be remade, like bread;
remade all the time; made new
— Ursula LeGuin

Barbara Fredrickson has coined the term “positivity resonance.” It refers to the “micro-moments of love that you can experience in the company of others, when a positive emotional experience unfolds between and among you at the same time.” You can share them with anyone — your romantic partner, child, friend, or a total stranger.

One of the easiest ways to infuse your day with positive emotions is with a simple SMILE. Offer a smile to people you encounter over the course of your day. If you are rewarded with a smile back (as you most likely will – humans are programmed for facial mimicry!), engage the person in some light-hearted conversation. Beginning with the exchanged smiles, both of you will experience the biobehavioral synchrony I talked about earlier. Both of you will be on an upward spiral of the heart!

How have you experienced biobehavioral synchrony?

Have you noticed upward spirals in your own life?



2 Comments on “Upward Spirals of the Heart

  1. One time when I was in my 20’s and shy, I tried an experiment: I tried smiling at strangers & saying something brief, like “hello” or “have a nice day”. It changed me, and some of them! I even asked some people, one at a time, if they would mind me joining them for a coffee break or lunch, and most often they did, to my surprise, and we had some very pleasant conversations.
    I think about how important your ‘positivity resonance’ is in older age — I am a senior– and am losing lifelong friends and relatives. How crucial it is to keep connecting with those within & outside our own age groups whether through bridge, church, boating, exercise or social activities. Even connecting with those who may have some difficulties has its place in “giving back”.
    Thank you for your inspiring blog & photos! They make my day!

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