Cytokines are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder. They are vital in that they help us fight off infections, trauma, and viruses; however, an overproduction of them leads to chronic inflammation, which in turn contributes to a variety of negative health outcomes, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many mental health disorders.
The good news is that we have more control over our health than previously thought. Research is mounting that good health stems not only from our diet and exercise habits, but also from our emotions and state of mind. In fact, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley just found that feelings of awe are linked to a powerful anti-inflammatory action in the body. Good feelings, in other words, are like the emotional version of fish oil supplements.
“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, a psychologist at the UC, Berkeley, in a press release.
For the study, more than 200 young adults reported the extent to which they had experienced positive emotions on a particular day, such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. On the same day, researchers took samples of the participants’ gum and cheek tissue, known as oral mucosal transudate. Those who experienced more positive emotions, particularly awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation.
The researchers can’t say for sure which comes first – the low cytokines or the positive feelings: “It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional,” said lead author Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto. But whichever direction it flows, the link between the two is significant.
Make awe a daily habit in your life by taking the time to really look at the awesome beauty of the world in which we live. For starters, pick a song, a work of art, or even an old tree that you have seen many times, and experience it with new eyes, as if you are seeing (or hearing) it for the first time. As you make this practice a part of your daily life, witness your sense of wonder increase and your levels of inflammation go down.
The UC, Berkeley study is published in the journal Emotion.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” —W.B.Yeats