For years authors and painters have used nature as a source of inspiration. As American naturalist John Burroughs wrote in his essay entitled The Gospel of Nature, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.” As it turns out, Burroughs had the right idea!
While Burroughs was already aware of the healing and soothing powers of nature back in 1912, a study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley recently confirmed that experiences with art, nature and spirituality actually help prevent chronic diseases.
Studying the Effects of Mother Nature
To determine the mental and physical health benefits of art, nature and spirituality, the team observed how often two study groups of more than 200 young adults experienced various positive emotions on a daily basis, such as awe, compassion, pride, amusement, joy and contentment. After taking daily cheek and gum tissue samples, the team determined that those young adults who experienced more positive emotions had small amounts of cytokine, the protein responsible for triggering inflammation, in their system.
Although inflammation is responsible for fighting both infections and diseases when the body senses a threat, high levels of cytokines can actually lead to health problems including depression, Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Experiencing wonder, amazement or awe on a daily basis can lead to lower levels of cytokines, and therefore a decrease in these health risks.
So what exactly is the feeling of awe? Berkeley psychologist and co-author of the study Dacher Keltner defines awe as a feeling “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.” But awe has more health benefits than those discovered in this study. Awe is also responsible for expanding one’s perception of time, boosting creative thinking and inspiring a deeply personal transformation.
We’re all familiar with the original Seven Wonders of the World featuring the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and even a new list of Seven Wonders which features the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India and Machu Picchu in Peru. But you don’t need to travel to these exotic locations around the world to experience the health benefits associated with feelings of awe and wonder.
To get your daily dose of awe, wonder and amazement, take nature walks to improve your mental health, participate in a spiritual or religious event or simply jam along to an inspirational song. According to one of the University of Toronto’s postdoctoral researchers and co-author of the study Jennifer Stellar, “Rather than seeing a walk through the park or a trip to the museum as an indulgence, we hope people will view these kind of experiences as important ways to promote a healthy body in addition to a healthy mind.”
Just remember: no one is ever too old to experience that childlike sense of wonder and awe, and it might just improve your health!