Positive emotions, especially the feeling of awe, have been linked to lower levels of inflammatory cytokines by a new study.
The research suggests that the positive feeling from enjoying the beauty of nature or getting lost in a painting or symphony can actually help protect the body against heart disease, arthritis, depression, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Dacher Keltner, one of the study’s authors, said:
“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.”
Across two different experiments, 200 people reported their emotions during the day, including the extent to which they felt:
- and pride.
Their cheeks were also swabbed to get a measure of the cytokine, Interleukin 6, which is a marker of inflammation.
The results, published in the journal Emotion, showed that experiencing positive emotions was linked to lower levels of the inflammation marker (Stellar et al., 2015).
Awe, in particular, had a strong association with lower cytokine levels.
Dr Jennifer Stellar, the study’s lead author, said:
“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.”
In depression, for example, the pro-inflammatory cytokines are thought to be important as they tend to block key hormones and neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, which affect memory, sleep, appetite and mood.
People who are depressed have been found to have higher levels of certain inflammatory cytokines.
The study can’t yet tell us what causes what, though, as Dr Stellar explained:
“It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional.”
Nevertheless, this is one of the first studies to link positive emotions to a boost in the body’s defences against both mental and physical illness.
Woman and sunset image from Shutterstock