Ch. 9: Happiness, Success, and the Science of Positive Feelings

Modern science is confirming what the Indian sages discovered long ago.

Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath™ Research Center (IHM) in Boulder Creek, California are studying the effects of positive feelings such as love, compassion, and kindness on our bodies and brains. Their research supports the notion that it’s important for children’s academic success that they learn to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”[1]

Here are some of the Institute of HeartMath findings:

  • Positive emotional states exert a whole-body synchronizing effect by bringing brain waves, heart rhythms, breathing, and blood-pressure oscillations into a unified, harmonious rhythm. During positive feelings, “bodily systems function with a high degree of synchronization, efficiency and harmony.”
  • Deliberately focusing attention in the heart while cultivating feelings of love, compassion, etc., leads to clearer thinking, calmer emotions, and improved physical performance and health, as well as increased frequency of subjective reports of spiritual experiences.
  • Positive, expansive feelings such as love, appreciation, and compassion promote relaxation and synchronization of the nervous system. They quiet the “arousal” (sympathetic) branch of the nervous system and activate the “relaxation” (parasympathetic) side. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for speeding up heart rate and preparing the body for action, while the parasympathetic branch governs the “relaxation response,” slowing heart rate and calming body, emotions, and brain.
  • Positive feelings quiet the mind, generate a sense of “self-security, peace and love,” and increase the frequency of reported feelings of “connectedness to God.”
    • Additionally, the researchers found that negative emotions such as anger, fear, and hatred make the heartbeat change speeds erratically—the heart literally speeds up and slows down chaotically from one beat to the next, like the random, jerky motion of a car that’s running out of gas. (See figure.)
  • Positive emotions such as love, compassion, and appreciation, on the other hand, make the heart beat with a harmonious, regular rhythm. During negative emotions, the heart’s irregular speed changes appear as jagged, disordered spikes, and its power output is relatively low. Simple relaxation produces a more regular rhythm. But deliberately cultivating positive emotions makes the heart beat in a steady, consistent, harmonious rhythm, reflected in the regular, sine-wave-like pattern in the figure (“Appreciation”). During positive emotions, the heart’s power output jumps by over 500% above the levels attained during negative emotions and simple relaxation. (In the figure, note the Power Spectral Density [PSD] scale in “Appreciation.”)

The Institute of HeartMath findings have begun to find practical applications in professional sports. Here is an excerpt from an article on the website of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA):

When we’re stressed or upset, it’s physically impossible to think clearly or perform at our best. This is because a disordered heart rhythm pattern sends a signal to the brain that inhibits the cortex, the higher thinking and reasoning part of the brain. On the other hand, when we are feeling confident, secure, and appreciative, our heart rhythms become smooth and even…. Smooth heart rhythm patterns send a signal to the brain that synchronizes and facilitates cortical function, speeding up our reaction times and making it easier to think clearly, perceive a bigger picture, and make better decisions.[2]

The heart and brain communicate continually through the nervous system. Thus the heart’s powerful positive or negative, harmonizing or disruptive messages are carried instantly to the brain, where they enhance or interfere with our ability to remain cool and to concentrate. (The heart is the body’s most powerful oscillator, sending out electrical signals roughly 60 times as strong as those emitted by the brain.)

To summarize: positive, harmonious feelings enhance mental focus, calmness, health, performance, intuition, and the frequency of spiritual feelings. They increase relaxation, alpha-wave output in the brain (associated with a calm, meditative state), and synchronize heart-rhythm patterns, respiratory rhythms, and blood pressure oscillations.

When the Institute of HeartMath scientists taught simple methods for harmonizing the heart’s feelings to school children in the Washington, DC area, the children’s test scores immediately rose.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, the teachers lead the students in practicing heart-harmonizing methods every day. In the classroom and on the playground, the teachers pay extremely close attention to the quality of the children’s interactions with each other, and their mood. The teachers are trained to nurture a harmonious, safe, expansive environment that is optimized for learning.

[1] The basic Institute of HeartMath research is described in The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre and Howard Martin (HarperSanFrancisco 1999), as well as in research papers on the organization’s website, www.heartmath.org.

[2] “Second That Emotion,” by Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., Pia Nilsson, and Lynn Marriott, downloaded from www.pga.com in 2004. Gold Digest readers voted Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott to the magazine’s list of the top 50 US golf coaches.

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