How Awe Can Heal

Among the feelings and experiences that transcend all cultures, languages, and civilizations is the sense of awe and wonder one has upon reflecting on the beauty of nature, a masterful work of art, or some other emotionally captivating sensory experience. While we all enjoy such feelings, most of us would probably never imagine that they could be good for our health.

But according to recent study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, embracing the beauty of the world — be it artwork, music, wilderness, etc. — has a measurable positive impact on both mental and physical wellness. As The Telegraph reports:

In two separate experiments on more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride.

Samples of gum and cheek tissue – known as oral mucosal transudate – taken that same day showed those who experienced more of these – in particular wonder and amazement – had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6 which is a marker of inflammation.

Psychologist Dr Dacher Keltner, of California University in Berkeley, said: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests 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.”

Cytokines are chemicals necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma but too many are linked with disorders like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.

Dr Jennifer Stellar, of Toronto University who was at California University in Berkeley when she carried out the study, said: “Our findings demonstrate positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”

This is also one of the first studies to explore the role of cytokine in depression as well as autoimmune diseases; people with clinical depression also tended to have higher levels of inflammation, showing yet another correlation between physical and mental health. By feeling awed, curious, and captivated by something, individuals who would otherwise be withdrawn from the world’s beauty and left to wallow in self-perpetuating sadness and poor health can enjoy a palpable respite.

To be sure, these are the results of one relatively small study, involving a little over 200 young adults, and the researchers are by no means advocating nature or art as a substitute for medication, therapy, and the like. But this does confirm a long-standing observation of how a sense of awe of the world around us — be it natural or human-made — is good for mind, body, and soul (whether you define the latter in secular or spiritual terms).

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to feeling at my calmest and least depressed when I am listening to a brilliant composition or immersing myself in nature (even at a park or my own backyard). It has not always worked, nor should be expected to, but even the mere thought of all the beauty there is to embrace and experience is enough to comfort me during some of my darkest moments. Our species needs more than just the basic needs of survival to truly live and flourish. Together with diet, exercise, social support, and a sense of purpose, the fulfilment and stimulation that comes from all the natural and humanmade beauty of the world cannot be understated in importance. It all comes together.

Next time you are feeling sad or otherwise off in some way, consider giving this a try. Again, it is by no means a cure-all nor viable for everyone, but it is a shot. We all need to escape from our heads once in a while, especially if there is a lot despair and sadness stewing around. Never underestimate the sense of inspiration and comfort that well placed wonder can have.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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