Art, music and nature good for our health

By Tracy Brighten

If you feel awe on seeing a breath-taking view, joy on hearing a song thrush’s trills, or contentment on listening to Mozart, you may also enjoy good health

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Researchers in a study at UC Berkeley found a biological pathway between positive emotions and good health that involves pro-inflammatory cytokines.

Cytokines are proteins that interact with immune system cells to regulate the inflammatory response to infection, disease and injury. However, sustained high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines can be damaging and are associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression.

Pro-inflammatory cytokines affect neurotransmitter signalling in the central nervous system, decreasing the availability of serotonin and dopamine in the synapse, which may cause depressive symptoms such as low mood.

Previous research confirms that diet and nutrition are key determinants of mental health, but this study is the first to look at the effects of positive emotion.

In experiments on 200 young adults, emotions of amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride were measured from samples of gum and cheek tissue. Researchers found that positive emotions – awe in particular – reduced levels of the inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-6, with positive effects on mental health.

Published in the journal Emotion, the UC Berkeley study was led by Jennifer Stellar, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto.

“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 – have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” says Dacher Keltner, psychologist and a co-author of the study.

Image credit: David Brighten

Article first published on Science Nutshell February 15, 2015