Awe is probably not an emotion many of us experience on a regular basis; a childlike sense of wonder is hard to achieve when you’re busy avoiding giant slush puddles on your way to work. But perhaps we should seek out the feeling more often, as psychologists keep finding new ways that it benefits us. Research has indicated that awe seems to encourage collaboration, for one; it also appears to slow down our perception of the passage of time. And the latest study, published recently in the journal Emotion, suggests that feeling awe may promote good health.
Specifically, as lead study author Jennifer E. Stellar explained in a phone interview, people who reported feeling awe on a regular basis tended to have lower markers of inflammation, which has been correlated with ailments like heart disease and cancer. In two experiments, Stellar analyzed cheek swabs from more than 200 healthy study volunteers, looking for a particular inflammatory protein; the volunteers also completed questionnaires assessing the positive and negative emotions they’d felt during the previous month. Overall, Stellar found that those who reported feeling more positive emotions also tended to have fewer of the inflammatory markers — but she found that awe produced the strongest correlation.
In her paper, Stellar explains the correlation this way:
One reason is that proinflammatory cytokines encourage social withdrawal and reduce exploration, which would serve the adaptive purpose of helping an individual recover from injury or sickness. … [A]we is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation.
It’s speculative still, as it’s very early in the research process, but Stellar’s work and others suggest there may be some measurable benefits to something as intangible and hard to explain as the experience of awe.