CiPP Spotlight: Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD, brings an interesting perspective to the study of positive psychology. She combines her background in neuroscience with her training in psychology to better understand the effects of happiness, compassion, and kindness. Having experience in both disciplines gives Emiliana a truly unique perspective.

Those attending the Certificate in Positive Psychology will have the opportunity to learn from Emiliana in a module titled “Relationships and Happiness: Harnessing the Upward Spiral.” This module is targeted toward anyone looking to maintain or establish a close, trusting relationship.

“Physically speaking, our vagus nerve represents our sense of connection and closeness,” explains Emiliana. The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, whose responses are most often measured in the projections to the heart. “When the vagus nerve influences our system, our heart rate quickens. Our natural reaction to counteract this is to exhale,” says Emiliana. An extended duration of exhaling brings the heart rate back to normal. Yoga is a perfect example of this vagus nerve regulation in action.

So how do we recognize and implement this understanding in everyday encounters? Emiliana says that we can harness the “upward spiral” when building relationships with friends, coworkers, significant others—anyone we come in contact with. She says it can be particularly profound when we allow ourselves to have a positive, trusting, emotional exchange with someone we’ve just met. “My joyful moments are spontaneous conversations with strangers about something that makes me feel connected with them,” Emiliana says. “I have a bigger trust in humanity. It makes me feel safe in the world.”

These connections with others stimulate our physiological well-being and influence our emotional well-being. “We are an ultra-social species meant to build relationships,” Emiliana explains. From the psychology standpoint, Emiliana notes that we have a natural ability to sense another person’s emotional state. Our built-in systems allow us to read nonverbal cues and use them to harness a relationship’s upward spiral. The combination of our physical reactions (such as heart rate), past experiences, and general observations gives us the capacity to connect, communicate, and (sometimes) cohabitate.

While positive psychology is devoted to the science of happiness, neuroscience has different priorities, Emiliana says. “Neurosciences have a slim community focused on happiness, while psychology has the entire sub-discipline of positive psychology,” she explains. “Neuroscience is focused on physical well-being; happiness is not seen as important as, say, cochlear implants.” But, with the influence of scientists like her, that might be changing.

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD, is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she oversees the GGSC’s fellowship program, is a co-instructor of its Science of Happiness online course, and helps run its Expanding Gratitude project. Emiliana is a leading expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other “pro-social” skills. She earned her doctorate in Cognition Brain and Behavior at UC Berkeley, where her dissertation used behavioral and neuroscience methods to examined how negative states like fear and aversion influence thinking and decision-making. Emiliana served as Associate Director/Senior Scientist at CCARE (the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University), focusing on how compassion benefits health, well-being, and psychosocial functioning. Today, Emiliana’s work spotlights the science that connects health and happiness to social affiliation, caregiving, and collaborative relationships, as she continues to examine the potential for and benefits of living a more meaningful life.