A new study by the University of California Berkeley has revealed that positive emotions invoked by music, art and nature stimulate the immune system. The immune response results in lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This is the first study to investigate the impact of positive emotions.
Cytokines are normally associated with co-ordinating cells to respond to infection, disease and trauma. However, sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with adverse health and conditions such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression. One key study found that depressed patients had higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine known as TNF-alpha than their non-depressed counterparts. Researchers theorize that by signaling the brain to produce inflammatory molecules, cytokines can block key hormones and neurotransmitters involved in controlling moods, appetite, sleep and memory.
The study involved 2 separate experiments with more than 200 young adult research participants who reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The participants donated samples of gum and cheek tissue, taken on the same day The results revealed that those 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.
“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.
“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.
Jennifer E. Stellar, Neha John-Henderson, Craig L. Anderson, Amie M. Gordon, Galen D. McNeil, Dacher Keltner. Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines.. Emotion, 2015; DOI: 10.1037/emo0000033