By now, we're all pretty well-versed in the mind-body connection: We know that meditation can extend our lives and that yoga is good for our hearts. And that's largely because anxiety and depression can cause adverse health effects, and these practices have been proven to help with these conditions.
But we don't know much about the health benefits of specific good moods — like joy and pride — or how they compare to one another. That is, until now.
A new study from UC Berkeley singles out one emotion as a particularly potent medicine: awe. Yes, that spine-tingling feeling you get when you hear a moving piece of music or see a crystal clear sky full of stars. And fortunately, awe seems to be much easier to attain than you might expect — even when you're stressed out.
The researchers found that positive emotions — especially awe — with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.
For the first part of the experiment, researchers first asked 94 college freshmen to fill out questionnaires about how frequently during the past month they felt various positive and negative emotions, like hostility, enthusiasm, and inspiration. They then took saliva samples from them to test for levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a molecule known to promote inflammation throughout the body. And, as anticipated, those who felt more positive emotions on a regular basis had lower levels of IL-6 than classmates who were more commonly down in the dumps.
For the second half of the study, they asked a separate group of 119 college freshmen the extent to which they had experienced positive emotions like amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love, and pride. This students also provided a saliva sample. They found that, while happy moods were generally still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. And the emotion seems to have a profound impact on markers related to inflammation, too.
"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," said co-author Dacher Keltner in a press release.
Plus, it's encouraging that awe isn't necessarily hard to come by. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week.
Of course, there are some caveats. The sample size is small, and as the researchers are not entirely sure that having lower levels of cytokines makes people feel happier instead of the other way around. But it's still compelling to consider the possibility that appreciating a particularly breathtaking landscape — on canvas or in person — could have a positive impact on our health.
(h/t New York Times)