From 2006 to 2017 I worked as a social psychologist and researched social connection as viewed through the lenses of psychophysiology and evolutionary psychology. Social connections are necessary for health; studies have shown that lack of social connections creates an increase in cardiovascular disease risk comparable to smoking. Unfortunately, increasing numbers of people in the United States report that they are suffering from a deficit in social connections. A better understanding of the psychological and physical causes and consequences of social connection is necessary to address this widespread, health-damaging social problem.
The overarching goal of my research program was to explore the possible bi-directional links between the "social mind" and physiology to illuminate how our bodies drive us to make the connections we need to survive.
Socio-Autonomic Spiral Model of Social Connection
In my academic work, I posited that the known association between health and social connection reflects a reciprocal causality, an "upward spiral" in which people who are attuned to social cues become more socially connected and healthier over time. I describe these relationships in my Socio-Autonomic Spiral Model of Social Connection, pictured in the figure. According to this model, being socially connected is linked to more efficient autonomic functioning. As such, greater social connection should then decrease risk for illnesses associated with autonomic dysregulation, such as depression, anxiety, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
In addition, autonomic regulation is linked to emotion regulation and social intelligence, suggesting that increasing autonomic regulatory capacity would increase a person's ability to read and act on social cues over time. As the person's social acuity improves, so does their access to social connections and their improvements in mental and physical health. In this mutually reinforcing spiral of social and physiological change, the consequences of small, subtle, even fleeting changes in behavior accumulate and compound over time, eventually creating the enduring and stable differences in physical and mental health that researchers have linked to social connections.
While spiral patterns in well-being have been observed among psychological variables such as positive emotions, mental health, and trust, my model is the first to include physiological change. Linking physiological change to upward spirals in well-being provides a mechanism for maintaining well-being change over time: By modifying a stable individual difference such as autonomic regulation, upward spirals become embodied and have a greater resistance to short-term changes in behavior, mood or environment that might otherwise reverse gains in well-being.
Isgett, S.F., Kok, B.E., Baczkowski, B.M., Algoe, S.B., Grewen, K.M. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2017). Influences of oxytocin and respiratory sinus arrhythmia on emotions and social behavior in daily life. Emotion, 17(8), 1156-1165.
Kok, B.E. & Singer, T. (2017). Effects of contemplative dyads on engagement and perceived social connectedness over 9 months of mental training: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry.
Engert, V., Kok, B. E., Papassotiriou, I., Chrousos, G. P. & Singer, T. (2017). Specific reduction in cortisol stress reactivity after social but not attention-based mental training. Science Advances.
Kok, B.E. & Singer, T. (2016). Phenomenological fingerprints of four meditations: Differential state changes in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition, and interoception before and after daily practice across 9 months of training. Mindfulness, 1-14.
Bornemann, B., Kok, B.E., Boeckler, A. & Singer, T. (2016). Helping from the heart: Voluntary upregulation of heart rate variability predicts altruistic behavior. Biological Psychology, 119, 54-63.
Lumma, A-L., Kok, B.E. & Singer, T. (2015). Is meditation always relaxing? Investigating heart rate, heart rate variability, experienced effort and likeability during training of three types of meditation. International Journal of Physiophysiology, 97(1), 38-45.
Kok, B.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2015). Evidence for the Upward Spiral stands steady: A response to Heathers, Brown, Coyne, and Friedman (2015). Psychological Science, 26(7), 1144-1146.
Pek, J., Chalmers, R.P., Kok, B.E. & Losardo, D. (2015). Visualizing confidence bands for semiparametrically estimated nonlinear relations among latent variables. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 40, 402-423.
Kok, B.E., Coffey, K.A., Cohn, M.A., Catalino, L.I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S., Brantley, M. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123-1132. Supplemental material.
Kok, B.E., Waugh, C.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2013). Meditation and health: The search for mechanisms of action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass,7(1), 27-39.
Kok, B.E. & Fredrickson, 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), 342-346.
Pek, J., Sterba, S. K., Kok, B.E. & Bauer, D. J. (2009). Estimating and visualizing nonlinear relations among latent variables: A semiparametric approach. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 44, 407-436.
Kok, B.E. (2013). The science of subjective experience: Positive emotions and social closeness influence autonomic functioning. In T. Singer & M. Bolz (Eds.), Compassion: Bridging Practice and Science.
Kok, B.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2013). Well-being begins with "We": The physical and mental health benefits of interventions that increase social closeness. In F. Huppert & C .Cooper (Eds.), Interventions and Policies to Enhance Well-Being.
Kok, B. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2012). How positive emotions broaden and build. In J. J. Froh & A. C. Parks (Eds.) Activities for Teaching Positive Psychology: A Guide for Instructors. Washington DC: APA Books.
Kok, B.E., Catalino, L. I. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2008). The broadening, building, buffering effects of positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best of people: Vol. 3 Capitalizing on emotional experiences. (pp.1-19). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company.