We’ve always known these things —the beautiful things in art, music, or nature — are good for the soul. But according to a new study, the positive emotions these make us feel can be good for our health, as well.
According to research from UC Berkeley, positive emotions may give a boost to the body’s immune system, lowering levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that tell the system to work harder.
In two separate experiments, more than 200 young adults monitored the days they experienced positive emotions such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love or pride. The same day, samples were taken of their gum and cheek tissue, called oral mucosal transudate. The results showed that positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, Interleukin 6, a sign of inflammation.
The study confirms what many doctors and researchers have thought for years — that there’s a powerful healing property hiding within our minds.
“This research is newer, but over the past 20 years most researchers have become very interested in that correlation,” said Michael Lawrence, PhD, ABPP-CN, a clinical neuropsychologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “They’re starting to look at things from a biopsychosocial perspective. That means that biology is tied to psychology and social aspects. People that thrive have balance in all three spheres.”
The Berkeley study, whose findings were just published in the journal Emotion, underscores the need for physicians and researchers to expand their scope, Dr. Lawrence said.
“It’s our goal to treat the whole person,” he explained. “We see it with many different illnesses. If you just treat the pain and not the psychological factors, patients don’t see as much relief.
“If we can help with positive emotion, we not only have an impact on the psychological, but also the physical. It’s the same with depression. If all you treat is the pain, you’re still going to be depressed, right?”
The study, while limited in scope, coincides with long-held beliefs about mind and matter, Dr. Lawrence said.
“The research is limited in scope, but it ties into theories we have that it’s all highly related,” he said. “That’s why you’ll see more and more psychologists embedded in a whole lot of different types of clinics.”
The problem, Dr. Lawrence noted, is that fewer and fewer of us actually take time to take in life’s beauty, as we become bogged down by the minutia of multitasking and modern society.
“It’s the same thing as sleep. Your immune system is affected by sleep, by stress,” he said. “The take-home message is that we need to find better balance. The problem is, we’re not very good at doing it.
“When was the last time you felt you could go on vacation and not be tied to your devices? You see people at the Super Bowl and they’re all on their cell phones. It’s hard for us. I’m guilty of it, too. I sit down to eat with my family, and I have the urge to check my phone.”
If nothing else, Dr. Lawrence said the study is a good reminder to stop and smell the roses.
“It helps give you perspective,” he said. “We need to get back to balance. It’s all about balance. If we can improve emotion, and enjoy what’s right in front of us, not only are we happier but we’re healthier.
“For many years we thought it was a one-way relationship, but it’s like a circle. It’s all inter-related. If we can improve emotional health, we can improve the tolerance for these things. I think this is a new way of thinking now.”