The Science of Happiness Post 3: Social Connections: The Role of Oxytocin and the Vagus Nerve

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship,” says renowned Brené Brown in her 2017 book Rising Strong. And indeed, according to Emiliana Simon-Thomas, research from across the field of positive psychology has shown how important social connections are to happiness: “Very happy people have rich relationships and spend little time alone; talking with friends is one of the happiest activities; and sex and socializing give lots of positive emotion.” On the other hand, loneliness is correlated with hyperinflammation, decreased immune response, and trouble sleeping. Furthermore, research by Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger on the neural basis of social connection at the University of California, Los Angeles, has shown that when people are actively excluded, their brains light up regions that are the same regions that light up when they feel pain.

According to John Bowlby, British psychiatrist originator of the attachment theory in 1951, humans are born with a need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver, and this strong or weak bond will have behavioral and psychological consequences later on how those adults relate with others. In general, families develop three systems of attachment: reproductive (sex), caregiving (between parents and babies), and relationships (love and commitment), which create deeply held views in our brains about whether other people are trustworthy and how to relate to them. Bowlby identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. People who are securely attached are loving, warm, and trusting; as a result, they tend to be happier, have more positive emotions, and have more stable relationships. People who are anxiously attached never feel close enough or loved enough; people who are avoidantly attached refrain from closeness, remaining aloof and distant. But is it possible to overcome an insecure attachment bond learned in childhood? Meghan Laslocky, author of The Little Book of Heartbreak, explains how it is possible to stop attachment insecurity to keep you from happiness.

Trusting others is then an essential part of human connection. And at the center of this biologically-based behavior, explains Michael Kosfeld in his article Brain Trust, is the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin, also referred to as the “feel-good hormone,” is produced by the hypothalamus in the brain and released through the bloodstream to essential organs in response to a mechanism called the care-nurturance circuitry. In general, more oxytocin correlates with a reduced stress response in our hormones, cardiovascular system, and amygdala, a brain region related to the processing of memory, decision making, and emotional responses. The presence of oxytocin also correlates with secure attachment, peaceful conflict resolution, feelings of trust, generosity, empathy, and ability to read emotions. “Oxytocin really looks like a neurochemical enabler of trust, devotion, and kindness,” says Dacher Keltner. According to him, scientists have long known that oxytocin plays an important role in childbirth and in mother-child bonding (such as during breastfeeding); however, research also suggests that oxytocin’s role in promoting social connection is even more extensive, being instrumental in reducing social anxiety, in fathers forming bonds with newborns, and in the stress-relieving effects of the attentive listening of a friend or physical touch. Keltner has pioneered research on The Science of Touch, affirming that “touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.”

We are biologically prompted to connect not only by the presence of oxytocin, but also because we have a built-in nervous circuit made for that: the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a mammalian nerve that starts at the top of our spinal cord and runs down through the neck muscles we use to nod and speak. It has connections to many key physical functions, including our oxytocin networks, immune response, and inflammation response. It also coordinates the interaction between breathing and heart rate, and controls many digestive processes. In 1994, renown neuroscientist Stephen Porges developed the The Polyvagal Theory, about the relationship between human physiology and social engagement, asserting that beyond the outdated belief that humans only had two options in the face of perceived danger: fight or flight, there was another one: to shut down. In this interview, he explains what he means by “wearing your heart on your face,” in which vocalizations in social contexts are less about syntax and language and more about the intonation conveying an emotional state. “Social communication has little to do with syntax and a lot to do with intonation, gestures, and a cluster of behaviors we would call biological movement. The face is moving along with the voice and hand gestures. The behavioral features trigger areas of our brain outside the realm of consciousness and change our physiology, enabling us to feel closer and safer with another. Good therapy and good social relations, good parenting, good teaching, it’s all about the same thing—how do you turn off defensiveness? When you turn defense systems off, you have accessibility to different cortical areas for more profound understanding, learning, and skill development.” 

In the same line of research, in this video Dr. Dacher Keltner gives an explanation of the vagus nerve, describing that people with lots of vagal activity show feelings of connection and care, more positive emotion, and stronger relationships. “What we find [in the lab] is really interesting: if you have a strong vagal profile, which you can cultivate through exercise, meditation, and other practices, you have more positive emotion on a daily basis, stronger relationships with peers, and better social support networks. Kids in schools, fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile, are the kids who intervene when a kid is being bullied. And they cooperate, and will donate time like recess time to help a kid who needs help on homework. It relates to altruism and pro-sociality as well, and they are trusted more. So, we think of compassion as this higher order emotion, but it really is tracking part of our nervous system as well.”

The vagus nerve is also central in the expression of one of the most effective skills we have for connecting with others: empathy. Scientists often identify two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy refers to the sensations and feelings we have in response to others’ expressions. Cognitive empathy refers to our ability to label and understand other people’s emotions. In general, taking the perspective of others leads to connection and compassion, generating positive emotion, and when others are empathetic, we get the benefits of their understanding and support as well. In the article Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, explains that we can cultivate empathy throughout our lives and use it as a radical force for social transformation.

Besides social connection and empathy that are determined by our early experiences in life, the release of oxytocin, and the activation of the vagus nerve in the body, there is another emotion central to building positive emotion and well-being: compassion. In the next post, I will be delving into why compassion and kindness are an integral part of our biology as well.

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