We all know how good it feels to take in nature’s wonders like a waterfall on an island, the view from a mountain top or a day at the beach. We’ve felt the breathtaking experience of visiting a beautiful chapel or mosque. And we’ve been enraptured by paintings, drawings and all forms of art in museums around the world.
According to new research from UC Berkeley, there’s a new found health benefit from these awe-inspiring experiences –reduced inflammation!
Researchers found that positive emotions experienced through nature, art and spirituality are linked to lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (proteins that signal the immune system to work harder).
Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, says, “Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”
“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” stated Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley psychologist and co-author of the study.
In the experiments, more than 200 young adults reported how much they experienced positive emotions such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Oral tissue samples, known as oral mucosal transudate, were taken that same day showed that those who experienced more of the emotions of awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, Interleukin 6 (linked to inflammation).
The study found that depressed individuals had higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine known as TNF-alpha than their awe-inspired counterparts.
Why does awe reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines?
“Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” says Stellar.
Which came first – the lowered cytokines or the positive feelings?
Stellar said she can’t know for sure. “It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional,” she said.
One thing is for sure though – everyone can benefit from a good museum, getting into nature and experiencing awe as much as possible.