February often seems like crawling through treacle. Maybe it’s just me that dislikes February?
I just find it a hard slog to get through the last month of winter without succumbing to the feeling of needing to curl up on the sofa and stagnate.
So I wanted to find something to cheer me up and I came across Random Acts Of Kindness Day on February 17.
Now, half of me thinks why should we need a special day for this? Surely we, as humans, have an in-built “be kind to people” button, although for some people, it’s gone a but rusty due to lack of use.
Being kind not only makes the recipient happy but it has a positive effect on your health and it can now be traced to a specific nerve – the vagus nerve, which connects social contact to the positive emotions that can flow from interactions.
The vagus regulates how efficiently heart rate changes with breathing and, in general, the greater its tone, the higher the heart rate variability and the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease.
It may also play a role in regulating glucose levels and immune responses.
In addition, and more relevant here, the vagus is intimately tied to how we connect with others – it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to speech, co-ordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions.
It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding.
Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behaviour.
Scientists have proven that mindfulness meditation, particularly loving-kindness meditation, gives an overall increase in positive emotions, and these emotional and psychological changes were correlated to a greater sense of connectedness to others – as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart rate variability.
The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion, and that helps us understand how our emotional and social experiences affects our physical health.
It might be that sitting with your legs crossed and repeating stuff like “May all beings be free from suffering,” is a little too far-out for you, but research does demonstrate the incredible power of meditation.
There is no need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than anti-depressants.
Also called metta, it’s the simple practice of directing well wishes towards other people.
Here’s How to Do It
The general idea is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and imagine what you wish for your life.
Formulate your desires into three or four phrases. Traditionally, they would be something like this:
“May I be healthy and strong. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease.”
Loving-kindness meditation is a simple repetition of these phrases, but it encourages the user to direct them at different people.
Start with by directing the phrases at yourself: “May I be happy.”
Next, direct it towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you.
Now visualise someone you feel neutral about – people you neither like nor dislike. This one can be harder than you’d think.
Then visualise the people you don’t like or who you are having a hard time with. Children who are being teased or bullied at school often feel quite empowered when they send love to the people making them miserable.
Finally, direct it towards everyone universally: “May all beings everywhere be happy.”
-- With thanks to TIME magazine and Greater Good.
-- The suggestions in this article are the personal opinion of the author. Please do not take any new remedies if you are currently on any medication without the consent of your GP.
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