STRESS
February 13, 2015

An Awesome Way to Reduce Stress

Experiencing awe — through music, art, religion, or nature — can reduce inflammation and the risk for depression.

The feeling of awe that a beautiful sunset or painting can inspire does more than make you feel good. When we experience awe or wonder, levels of inflammation in our body are lowered, which can be important to the body in several ways.

UC Berkeley researchers asked over 200 people to report the kinds of emotions they’d experienced throughout the day. Then the researchers swabbed the inside of participants’ mouths and used these skin cells to measure levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a key marker of inflammation.

A walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art can have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.

Those participants who’d experienced positive emotions like awe, amazement, and wonder that day — perhaps by seeing a beautiful sight in nature or hearing a beautiful piece of music — had the lowest levels of IL-6. It’s not clear whether the awe caused the people’s IL-6 levels to go down or whether there’s another type of relationship at work, but the results are intriguing.

“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,” Dacher Keltner, one of the study's authors, said in a statement.

There are a number of autoimmune disorders that are associated with higher levels of levels of inflammatory markers, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s.

One of the most interesting connections is with depression, which has increasingly been linked to inflammation in the brain. The authors point out that awe is associated with a sense of curiosity and a desire to explore the world, whereas inflammation is linked to the opposite behaviors — withdrawal and isolation.

It’s not clear how the awe-inflammation relationship works. “It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional,” said author Jennifer Stellar, meaning that awe may reduce inflammation and that reduced inflammation can make one more likely to experience awe.

Either way, it’s worth getting out there and experiencing as much overwhelmingly beautiful stuff as you can: Get lost in music, in nature, or in art — or in anything else that inspires wonder and curiosity. It will certainly elevate your mood and well-being, and it may even improve your health.

The study was carried out at the University of California Berkeley, and published in the journal Emotion.
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