Awe is exactly what I was feeling when I spotted this egg on Knox Mountain, near my home. It looks like a chicken egg in this photograph, but it was closer to the size of the business end of a teaspoon. Small and perfect, it was momentarily vulnerable, while the chick’s mother went off to feed. I quickly shot a photograph and left, not wanting to worry the mother bird.
The whole day broke open, just from having witnessed the miracle of this small egg. So I am not surprised that a new study has identified awe as a tonic that leads to better health. Jennifer Stellar was the lead author. She did the study at UC Berkeley and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto when it was published.
The investigators asked more than 200 young adults to report on their day. They were particularly interested in the level of positive emotions they had experienced that day. Then they sampled gum and cheek tissue and tested it for cytokine, particularly IL-6 (interleukin-6). Cytokines are important to cell-to-cell communication. They help the body respond to inflammation. Unfortunately, when the good and bad (i.e., anti- and pro-inflammatory) cytokines get out of balance, things can go awry.
IL-6 is one of the pro’s. Too much of that one or one of the other baddies can lead to allergy, atherosclerosis, cancer, depression Alzheimer’s and other nasty assaults on the body. That’s why the team was interested in seeing what impact experiencing happiness, fun, kindness or awe might have on the bad cytokines.
What they discovered was that students who had experienced the most positive emotions had the lowest levels of IL-6. Students who had experienced awe had the lowest levels of all.
As usual, correlation is not necessary causation. Maybe those with the lowest levels of IL-6 were naturally more open to curiosity and joy and less likely to have their pro-inflammatories run away with their health. Or maybe they just had fewer cytokines to begin with. It will take more studies to figure that out.
But whatever further research shows, this study fits well with others that have already shown that a positive outlook has a strong link with better health. So go for a walk and be amazed. Listen to music and be transported with joy. Do more of whatever lifts your heart. It can’t hurt, and it just might give you a longer, healthier life.