Once upon a time I’d have thought that a heartbeat that remains steady and unvarying is a sign of strength. But to my surprise, cardiac consistency is the hobgoblin of weaker minds and bodies. “The stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind,” the martial artist Bruce Lee said. So it is with the heart, which you want to bend to the ever-changing circumstances of the nervous system rather than pump on robotically, oblivious of the state of body and mind.

You want a heartbeat to be variable.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of irregularity in the intervals between beats. If you’re curious about how resilient you and your kid are, at least physiologically (which in the end can’t be separated from “cognitively”), you could do worse than to strap on a cheap, noninvasive heart monitor and download an app to measure your HRV. The subtle speed-up-slow-down between successive beats reveals more about resilience than does heart rate, which only counts the number of beats per minute. If the child has a heart rate of 120 beats per minutes she’s stressed or excited – that’s a no-brainer. With HRV, you also get a sense of how well she can respond to whatever’s going on and how well she’ll recover.

A high HRV measurement is generally a sign of resilience: the ability to adapt to and bounce back from stresses. In that context, it’s not much of a stretch to see how HRV is also linked with sociability, decision making, creativity, and problem solving.

The better the Buddha breath, the more Buddha-like the breather. We’re not all equals when it comes to deep abdominal exhales or any vagal-tone-boosting activity. A research group at the Max Planck Institute in Germany hypothesized that the people who do it easily and instinctively are friendlier and more generous than the norm. After all, virtuous traits require self-regulation, and anyone who automatically controls his or her breathing and heart rate variability under pressure has what it takes.

To test their idea, the researchers challenged a group of volunteers to a biofeedback task in which they had to reach a desired mind-body state to raise a ball on a screen. If a person exceeded an HRV threshold, the red spinning ball would rise. No one told the volunteers to use their Buddha breath, observation of the body, or any other technique to raise their HRV. Some did it naturally, as if they’d been controlling their hearts all their lives, and this group fascinated the researchers. Were these the people, they wondered, who’d put a coin in a beggar’s hat or stop the elevator door from closing to let in one more rider?

To find out, all the volunteers were given hypothetical scenarios in which they had money and could spend it, or not. Would they give it away charitably? Or would they maximize individual gain over group gain? How much did they favor an even distribution of wealth versus payouts only to people close to them? Were they purely generous, or did they only part with money when they expected something in return or when paying back those who helped them?

A pattern emerged, and with it a confirmation of the researchers’ hypothesis. The people who were good at raising their HRV on demand were indeed the same ones who gave away a fair amount of their money, and not merely out of social norms like reciprocity or punishment. Their generosity was motivated by altruism. You could say it came from the heart.

– Jena E Pincott

Read more: Can You Quantify Kids’ Resilience?

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