For my 60th birthday, I went on a week-long river rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. Recently, I swam with wild dolphins in Hawaii. Both trips left me stunned by nature. They also strengthened my immune system by lowering inflammation. Can you guess why?
It wasn't the exercise — though that is certainly beneficial as well. It was the emotions I felt during the trips! In fact, new research out of UC Berkeley and published in the journal Emotion has found an association between positive emotions and lower levels of inflammation. This is more pronounced when we're touched by nature, art, and spirituality.
Our bodies contain proteins called cytokines, which promote inflammation and tell our immune systems to work harder. This is beneficial when there's an actual threat our immune systems need to fight off. But we don't want elevated levels of cytokines or inflammation all the time. And this study found that positive emotions, particularly awe and wonder, are associated with lower levels of cytokines.
This is important because having high levels of cytokines over an extended period of time has been linked with poor health. In fact, it can cause health issues such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, and clinical depression.
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Of course, healthy habits like diet and exercise play a significant part in fighting these diseases. But this study was the first to examine whether our emotions could play a role as well. Study co-author and UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, explained the significance of these emotions, saying, "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."
The researchers conducted two different experiments that involved having over 200 young adults. These participants were to report the extent to which they had felt positive emotions, including amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love, and pride each day. Through daily samples taken of gum and cheek tissue, the researchers were able to determine that experiencing more positive emotion, particularly awe, wonder, and amazement, was linked to lower levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6, which is related to inflammation levels.
This study is particularly interesting because high cytokine levels can cause depression. Because they stimulate inflammation, cytokines may affect the brain negatively by blocking important hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine, which affect mood. According to study co-author Jennifer Stellar, these positive emotions may be significant in fighting depression because "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."
Stellar does point out that so far they've only determined an association, not causation, saying, "It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions or that the relationship is bidirectional."
Still, everyone enjoys feeling positive feelings! Make spending time in nature or going to a museum part of your weekly — or even daily — routine. Chances are, you'll do not just your mood but your health a favor.
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Jennifer E. Stellar, Neha John-Henderson, Craig L. Anderson, Amie M. Gordon, Galen D. McNeil, Dacher Keltner. Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines. Emotion, 2015; DOI: 10.1037/emo0000033.