Taking in the glory of nature at the top of a mountain peak, joining in a song of worship or viewing a breathtakingly beautiful piece of art are some of the experiences that fill us with awe and make us feel most alive. And according to new research, moments like this are both spiritually invigorating and good for our physical and mental health.
A University of California, Berkeley, study, published in the journal Emotion in January, suggests that the feeling of awe we may experience during encounters with art, nature and spirituality has an anti-inflammatory effect, protecting the body from chronic disease.
The researchers found a correlation between feelings of awe and lower levels of cytokines, markers that put the immune system on high alert by triggering a defensive reaction known as inflammation. While inflammation is essential to fighting infection and disease when the body is presented with a specific threat, chronically high levels of cytokines have been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, Alzheimer's, depression and autoimmune conditions.
“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 -– have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study, said in a press release.
In a previous paper, Kelter defined awe as a feeling "in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear," that is often inspired by encounters with the beautiful and the sublime. Study co-author Jennifer Stellar told The Huffington Post that experiences of awe are most commonly inspired by being in nature, followed by witnessing the impressive feats of others, participating in spiritual and religious events, and engaging with art and music.
To test the effect of awe on physical health, Keltner's team asked two separate study groups of young adults how much they experienced positive emotions such as awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy and pride on a given day. On the same day, the researchers took samples of participants' gum and cheek tissue to measure cytokine levels. The samples revealed that in both groups, those who had experienced awe, wonder or amazement that day had lower levels of cytokines, and therefore less inflammation, in their bodies.
While awe is relatively under-studied compared to other emotions, previous research has found that feelings of awe can also boost creative thinking, help create a sense of having enough time in the day, and inspire profound personal transformation.
The UC Berkeley study's findings join a growing body of research suggesting that positive emotions play an important role in promoting physical health. Studies have linked positive emotions with improved heart health and longevity, and some research has suggested that mindfulness practices -- which are known to improve emotional well-being -- can reduce inflammation.
"Rather than seeing a walk through the park or a trip to the museum as an indulgence, we hope people will view these kind of experiences as important ways to promote a healthy body in addition to a healthy mind," Stellar said. "Folding these kinds of positive experiences into your daily routine may be more important for health than we previously realized."