The awe you feel at the sight of the Grand Canyon or sound of Schubert's "Ave Maria" can increase your sense of well-being by suppressing inflammation-inducing chemicals, and may even help ward off depression, a recently published study indicates.
"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," Jennifer Stellar, lead study author, told the News Center at her team's research site, the University of California, Berkeley.
While a healthy diet, rest and exercise are known already to bolster the body’s defenses against physical and mental illnesses, the Berkeley study, published in the journal Emotion, is among the first to examine the role of positive emotions such as awe.
Researchers examined the link between positive moods and emotions and the presence of a chemical that causes inflammation, cytokine Interleukin-6.
Cytokine, friend and foe
Cytokines help trigger inflammation to fight infection and illness. However, sustained high levels of the protein are associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and depression. High cytokine levels can also block the neurotransmitters serotonin, a mood influencer, and dopamine, the feel-good chemical linked to reward-motivated behavior.
More than 200 young adults reported on one day the extent to which they had experienced positive emotions such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Those who experienced more positive emotions had lower levels of the Interleukin 6. Awe had the strongest association with lower cytokine levels.
Go out in search of awe
"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—as a direct influence upon health and life expectancy," says UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a study co-author.
Jennifer, now a University of Toronto postdoctoral researcher, says she can’t say for sure which comes first, low cytokines or positive feelings: "It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional."
Jim Gold is a veteran journalist who splits his time between Seattle and the Bay Area.