Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Healthiest Emotion May be AWE

Photo credit: Satterwhite.B / Foter / CC BY
There is lots of research about the adverse health effects of negative feelings such as depression, anxiety and shame: more heart disease, cancer and premature death. But less is known about how certain cheerier emotions affect overall health, feelings like contentment, joy or pride.

To delve deeper into happier feelings, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and other schools looked first at a variety of positive and negative emotions in 94 Berkeley freshmen. They filled out questionnaires about how frequently during the previous month they had experienced everything from enthusiasm and inspiration to hostility.

Next they analyzed saliva samples from the students, looking for the amount of interleukin-6 (IL-6) present. This is a molecule associated with inflammation and poor health. As expected, the IL-6 levels correlated with the emotions: students with positive emotions had the lowest levels and the converse was true for those with more negative feelings.

In the next step the investigators had 119 students fill out questionnaires about seven positive emotions: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Again they examined saliva levels. It turned out that the more often a student recorded feeling a sense of awe, the lower the IL-6. The students reported experiencing awe three or more times a week.

“There seems to be something about awe,” said Dacher Keltner PhD, senior author of the study and director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.”

Keltner said that an awe-inspiring event “will pass the goose-bumps test.” Awe is different for each person. “Some people feel awe listening to music,” Dr. Keltner says, “others watching a sunset or attending a political rally or seeing kids play.”

The study was published in the January 2015 edition of the journal Emotion.

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