Fruita, Colorado

Feelings of awe, contentment, love and pride can improve overall physical health, a new study finds. (Photo: Zach Dischner/Flickr)

You know that sense of awe when you're dwarfed by a starry sky or caught up in the crescendo of a song? It's not all in your head, new research suggests. In fact, it might benefit your entire body.

That's because certain positive emotions — especially the awe triggered by nature, art or existential thinking — are associated with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, according to a new study published in the journal Emotion. Cytokines are proteins that help rally immune cells around an injury or infection, but this beneficial mission can go awry when they accumulate at high levels for too long. An overabundance of cytokines can raise the risk of inflammation that promotes a wide range of ailments, including heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis and other autoimmune conditions.

"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," says study co-author and University of California-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner in a statement about the research.

While negative emotions are "reliably associated with poorer health," the study's authors write, "only recently has research begun to acknowledge the important role of positive emotions for our physical health." Awe is a particularly interesting emotion, like a mix of fear and fascination that prods us to explore, investigate and wonder. In a 2003 study about awe, Keltner offered this description:

"In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear is a little-studied emotion — awe. Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways."

mountain sunrise

Mountain vistas and other scenes of natural beauty are among the most common inspirations of awe. (Photo: Sylvia Sooyon/Shutterstock)

Natural beauty inspires awe worldwide, but different cultures articulate it differently. It's a key part of Norway's friluftsliv, for example, as well as other nature-centric customs like "forest bathing" in Japan. It's also similar to the Japanese concept of yugen, which refers to the way something vast and beautiful can capture our imaginations and trigger deep, difficult-to-describe emotions. "It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky," Japanese author Kamo no Chōmei wrote about yugen in 1212. "Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably."

For the new study, Keltner and his colleagues conducted two experiments in which 200 young adults reported levels of several positive emotions on a specific day, including amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The researchers also took samples of gum and cheek tissue, known as oral mucosal transudate, to see how these emotions correlate with interleukin-6, a cytokine used as a marker of inflammation. People who experienced more positive emotions had the lowest levels of interleukin-6, the study reveals, especially those who reported feeling awe, wonder and amazement.

An excess of cytokines has also been linked to clinical depression. These proteins are important for normal development and brain function, prompting us to alter our behavior to accommodate injury or illness. A spike in cytokines "produces adaptive behavioral responses that promote conservation of energy to combat infection or recovery from injury," explained a 2013 study in the journal Neuroscience. "However, chronic exposure to elevated inflammatory cytokines and persistent alterations in neurotransmitter systems can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders and depression."

beach silhouettes

Photo: Kevin Krejci/Flickr

Other recent research has found that depressed patients have more TNF-alpha, a pro-inflammatory cytokine, than patients not suffering from depression. Scientists suspect cytokines can block certain hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which would mean the proteins wield influence over everything from mood and memory to sleep and appetite.

The new study suggests awe is the most likely positive emotion to affect levels of interleukin-6, but it's too soon to know which causes which, explains co-author Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto. "It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions," Stellar says in a statement, "or that the relationship is bidirectional."

But that caveat shouldn't discourage anyone from seeking awe-inspiring experiences. Not only is awe usually fun, reminding us to marvel at the beauty and mystery of existence, but the activities that prompt it can also bring other perks, such as helping us boost creativity on a mountain hike or rejuvenating our brains with music. Being active, engaged and curious tends to benefit our bodies and minds in general, and Stellar notes that awe is strongly linked with that kind of mindset. "Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore," she says, "suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment."

If you need help jump-starting your own desire to explore, check out the awesome video below:

Related on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.