Sutherland, a town of about 2,841 inhabitants in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, is a place of utter magic. After dark when in the absence of city lights, the night sky becomes a deep, impenetrable black arc. The stars are so bright in that blackness you can almost touch them.
The feeling that overcomes you is one of awe. In the face of that vastness and beauty you realize your own insignificance. This is the definition of an experience of awe, an experience that benefits one deeply on a physical and spiritual level.
How an experience of awe affects us
According to new research from UC Berkeley an awe-inspiring experience like a visit to the Grand Canyon, looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or listening to Schubert’s “Ave Maria” may boost the body’s defense system, reports the Greater Good Magazine.
Researchers have linked positive emotions—especially the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art, and spirituality—with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.
Researchers say that we need to have more awe-inspiring experiences in life because it boosts happiness and the immune system, protecting us against things like depression and autoimmune diseases.
“Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health,” said Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she conducted while at UC Berkeley.
Cytokines are necessary to fight infection, disease and trauma, but sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and such disorders as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression.
“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,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.
The research results are actually awe-inspiring
In two separate experiments, 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.
Then, on the same day, samples were taken from their gums and cheek tissue.
The result: those participants who experienced more of these positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, Interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation.
In Greater Good Magazine, Keltner promotes what he calls an Awe Walk.
“We are all naturally endowed with a set of passions that enable us to find our purpose, increase our well-being, and navigate our place in the social world. These passions include gratitude, compassion, mirth, and (our focus here) awe,” says Keltner.
Keltner describes awe as the experience we have when we encounter things that are vast and large and that transcend our current understanding of the world.
He tells us that the Greek philosopher Protagoras believed that our capacity for awe is our defining strength, the engine of creativity, discovery, purpose, and health.
According to Keltner, “Brief experiences of awe—for example, standing amidst tall trees—lead people to be more altruistic, less entitled, more humble and aware of the strengths of others, and less stressed by the challenges of daily living.
“These brief experiences are good for the immune system, stir scientific thought, and give people a better sense of how they are part of larger social collectives.”