Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

The positive emotion that is surprisingly good for your health

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Most of us have heard that negative emotions like sadness, pessimism, anger and resentment are bad for our health. Conversely, we’ve heard that positive emotions are good for our health. But we haven’t really read much about which positive emotions are better than others for our health and wellbeing. A study from the University of California, Berkeley published in January 2015 in the journal, Emotion, examined exactly this question. The results may surprise you: the emotion most closely associated with lowering interleukin-6, an inflammation marker in the blood, was none other than….awe.

For more information and the full article, go to http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/an-upbeat-emotion-thats-surprisingly-good-for-you/?emc=eta1&_r=0

You may think that feeling awe is uncommon, but it may not be as elusive as you think. Some people describe awe as something that elicits goose bumps like a heart-wrenching or hair-raising story, or a performance that touches you deeply. You may feel a deep appreciation of something, like nature’s scenic views, or feel it when doing an activity that inspires you, like art or anything that has you feeling profoundly appreciative. A working definition of awe from the Oxford dictionary is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” We may feel in awe of great scientists, world leaders, performers, or even natural landscapes.

You may ask what other emotions have an effect on our cytokines, which are those inflammation markers in our blood.  To examine the effect of emotions in a clinical way, researchers used college freshman, a group picked for their seemingly sparse shows of wonder at the world.  Researchers compared saliva samples of subjects as they experienced seven specific emotions: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride.  Although inflammation markers decreased when they experienced all of the above positive emotions, IL-6 most markedly decreased in their saliva samples at the times when they reported feeling awe. In addition, subjects reported that they experienced what they perceived to be awe around 3 times a week, a high number that was unexpected by the investigators.

This begs the question: what causes you to feel awe? What awesome things can you build into your life? Can you augment the number of experiences, or quality within your relationships, to increase awesome feelings? It’s funny that the word awesome is used so carelessly by so many these days, when it really should be reserved for those events that cause that sense of wonder mixed with respect, and maybe some fear.

This week, I experienced awe four times that I can remember. One time was when my friend told me her story of going to a medium to explore her past lives and discovered that events in previous incarnations explained why her life has taken some unexpected twists and turns.  I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck!  Another time was when I went to the play “Appropriate” at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, which tapped into many emotions surrounding family and relationships and was very compelling. Another time I felt awe-struck was when I voted (early!) and felt the weight of this nation’s future on my shoulders. And yesterday, I saw “Le Corsaire” at the Boston Ballet and was riveted by the leaps, bounds, athleticism and costumes of the dancers. These events all vary wildly, yet they all caused that intense feeling and made me sit up and take notice. The feeling of awe is very subjective and is triggered by different events for all of us.

Although it sounds elusive, try tuning in to see what creates this feeling of awe in your life. Just as intentionally counting your blessings makes you more grateful, the same can occur when you pay attention to what is truly remarkable and noteworthy. You can increase the frequency of times you experience awe by being in the moment and appreciating those experiences that cause goose bumps, feelings of euphoria, or extreme contentment.

The research suggests that the more you pay attention to these feelings, the healthier you may become. There’s no downside to trying it.  I’ll be eager to hear what you’ve found; who knows, you might be surprised at how many awe-worthy things you find in your life each and every day!

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