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Heart Rate Variability as a Measure of Positive Emotion

Publication date: 16 September 2013

A recent New Scientist article reported on a study by a leading Positive Psychology researcher, Barabara Fredrickson, showing that loving-kindness meditation increased a Heart Rate Variability parameter that's commonly used as the basis for HRV biofeedback. It's yet more evidence that mental and emotional well-being is intimately linked to physiological functioning, and further demonstrates the value of meditation. But it rather begs the question, can boosting HRV increases levels of positivity? I believe the answer is yes.

Let's unpack what's being said. First, Heart Rate Variability is the pattern of change in heart rate over a time scale of seconds to minutes or hours. HRV tells you a lot about physiological functioning, and in particular balance in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Some of the calculated HRV parameters are measures of sympathetic and parasympathetic tone (these being the two branches of the ANS). Since the parasympathetic nervous system is carried by the vagus nerve, parasympathetic tone is also known as vagal tone, which is what the article refers to a lot.

Parasympathetic tone in particular is of interest, since it correlates with several physical, mental and emotional parameters. The New Scientist article tells us high vagal tone is reflected in:

  • better working memory
  • ability to focus attention (concentration)
  • better blood sugar control
  • emotional stability
  • sociability

Low vagal tone correlates with

  • diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease

Barbara Fredrickson's research shows that loving kindness meditation improves vagal tone, as measured using Heart Rate Variability. Loving kindness meditation is traditional practice in Buddhism, where it is known as metta bhavana. It's a means of training and developing positive emotion.

HRV biofeedback uses the same measures of vagal tone, as feedback, meaning that you can use the feedback to guide yourself towards better vagal tone. The Heartmath Institute has pioneered HRV biofeedback as a means of managing stress and developing emotional positivity, and their methods are explicitly "emotional" in flavour. (The Heartmath people refer to the state of optimal heart rate variability as heart rate coherence. Other teachers of HRV biofeedback emphasise slow regular breathing as the basis for building vagal tone. For many people (including me) the breathing route is the easier. I think it's interesting because it's a straight-forward physical (rather than overtly psychological) method of influencing emotion. Really it's about creating the physiological basis for the arising of positive emotion. I think if you were to practise loving-kindness meditation after (or incorporating) slow regular breathing, you'd be more "successful", in the sense that positive emotions would be more accessible.

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