Thanks to a little volcano in Indonesia, our plane trip home was cancelled and we have found ourselves stranded in Bali for an extra week of enforced R&R……it’s kind of like winning a lottery that you hadn’t got around to buying a ticket for. So after 14 days of working our way through the massage menu, hoovering up the heaving buffet tables and sampling every tourist attraction known to man, we are set to leave for home tonight, ash cloud permitting.
Along with the ubiquitous holiday purchases of dodgy wood carvings and mass produced paintings, my most treasured souvenir will be the memory of the way Balinese people smile. You only have to glance their way and their faces light up, delighting in the moment of connection you have created together. Their smiles are the most delicious gift; expansive, generous and heart warming. But what is most arresting is the innocence with which they smile, a simple testament to their belief in the goodness of others.
We respond to a smile from our earliest moments. Watch any new parent coo at their baby and you will see a beautific smile spread serenely across their malleable little faces. Glimpsing this remarkably private display of parental attachment, we are struck by the infectious power of their shared smiles…it is as if they emit a luminescence that shines on all those who watch them. We now know that these micro moments of connection are predictive of the psychological and physical wellbeing of both parent and child.
It’s all about the connectedness. As social creatures, we are wired to connect. Having moments of connection in our lives, whether it be sharing a smile with our child, an exquisite private glance with our partner or an unexpected smile from the waiter at the buffet station, is incredibly good for our health. In fact, the cumulative effect of these micro moments of connection results in as great a benefit to our physical and mental health as diet and exercise.
You might be wondering how a simple smile could have such a powerful effect. What happens is that when we make eye contact with someone who is smiling at us, an almost involuntary mimicry effect is triggered in our brains, which in turn triggers a neural connection that allows you to infer the meaning of their smile. And it is this level of behavioural synchrony that fuels a feeling of embodied support.
And it’s all because of a beautiful and rather long cranial nerve that runs from our brainstem to our abdomens via our hearts called the vagas nerve. The vagas nerve sends messages from your organs to your brain and vice versa. It also has a bit of a starring role in supporting your mental and physical health.
A strong vagas nerve not only affects our brain’s ability to regulate our mood and decrease rates of depression but also results in improved regulation of our glucose levels, boosts our immune system and lowers our risk of heart disease. With heart disease being the number one killer in the United States, this starring nerve is worth looking after. But how?
There are a number of ways to improve your vagus nerve tone, taking up yoga is one, focusing on deep breaths with a long exhale is another but perhaps most enjoyably, is connecting with others.
A study by Frederickson & Kok (2010) found that when we translate our positive emotions to a moment of social connection, such as an authentic smile to our partner, we improve our vagus nerve tone. After a period of continued practice of connectedness, we can actually change our health at a cellular level, with an increase in our white blood cell count. Thereby making us less prone to illness, inflammation and heart disease.
So creating more moments when you connect with others serves as a rather handy tune up for your heart and your mind. And remember those micro moments of connection count just as much as more intense periods of connection, so go on, give it a go and flash those pearly whites!
Kok, B.E. & Frederickson, B.L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart. Autonomic flexibility as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85(3), 432-436.