I recently read an article that outlined a new discovery whereby experiencing positive emotions, and in particular awe, has a beneficial effect on our mind and body. This research claims that certain positive emotions, such as awe and joy, can also protect us against certain diseases, including depression, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. The specific effect of experiencing these emotions is linked to lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. The experiments that produced these remarkable findings involved swabbing the cheeks of over 200 young adults who had experienced emotions such as amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love, pride and awe. Those who had experienced more of these positive emotions, in particular awe, showed the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6, a pro inflammatory cytokine. Cytokines are cell signalling molecules, and in themselves, cytokines are not “bad”.
Interleukin 6 can signal the brain to release inflammatory molecules, which can then block certain hormones and neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. This in turn then has an effect on sleep regulation, metabolism, and mood. This is turn can flare autoimmune diseases, and have an effect on depression.
The study suggests that: “awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioural responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment.” When we experience wonder and amazement, we “dampen” pro-inflammatory cytokines. The study does however caution that the feeling-cytokine relationship may be bi-directional.
Many of us will find time and opportunity to experience these emotions. We can listen to a magnificent piece of music, or spend a few hours in our favourite art gallery, or take a stroll in nature. I think it is important to remember that not all awe, compassion and joy need to come from something extraordinary or specific. Wonder and compassion can be experienced by observing the everyday. Joy can take the form of a favourite meal with someone you love.
This all sounds very optimistic, and for many, I’m sure it is. But what is there is a more downbeat side, where these emotions, in particular awe, could not be experienced or felt? For me, there appear to be two main areas which are potentially devoid of these beneficial emotions.
The first is the inability to experience positive emotions because of life circumstances. These include such obstacles as life worries, financial difficulty, depression, stress, illness, and family problems.
I think we can all agree that when our hearts and minds are heavily engaged elsewhere, it becomes, at the very least, extremely difficult to “feel” positive emotions in general. It is almost impossible, for example, to feel joy, amusement or contentment when weighed down by financial hardship or the illness of a loved one. These problems can become chronic, making it a formidable task to experience and benefit from positive emotions.
The second is the inability to experience positive emotions completely, through what could be termed lost awareness. There appears to be a percentage of people who are incapable of experiencing emotions like awe, certainly as it is described in the beneficial way above. In my life, I have been kept going by positive emotions like joy and wonder. Therefore, it is difficult for me to understand how someone could somehow be immune to this emotional experience. Nevertheless, I know people who have admitted just this. Not speaking of medical conditions, they do not, and in many ways cannot understand the feeling of emotions the way that (hopefully) most of us do. They are not moved by music or art, by the burst of spring or the colours of dawn. As a child, it never occurred to me that not everyone experienced the burst of joy when the sea sparkled, all sapphires and diamonds. I came to understand that there were levels of such feeling, but it took many years to accept that some people were simply immune, and admittedly so. This is not to say that this group of people are incapable of love, for example, because they are. Their ceiling of feeling is simply much lower than the rest of us. I once asked a close acquaintance of mine whether they enjoyed watching the coming into leaf and bloom of a particularly beautiful horse chestnut tree that was perfectly nestled in the heart of my capital city, and had recently been cut down. My acquaintance shook his head without much interest. No, he said, I don’t care for that kind of stuff. So in other words, he had barely (if!) noticed that it was once there and now gone, and it mattered not at all. This numbed level of feeling in others distresses me, and now it seems that it could have potentially detrimental consequences.
Why has this numbness become more prevalent? In my opinion, this numbed awareness stems from the fact that our modern lives are often “too much”. It’s too fast, with too much “stuff”: technology, social media, easy access news, problems, noise, personal demands and an endless quest for instant gratification. . It places an enormous burden on our psychic and emotional selves. Depending on who we are and how we choose to live, our minds prioritise and compartmentalise what they experience. Those who shut themselves away, with work, with problems, in offices, trying to handle the never-ending, are rewiring themselves to become a different type of person. A person who has lost the awareness of the connection between the simple things and emotion, a person who sees and hears but barely feels, because their attention and energy is continually directed elsewhere.
It seems like less and less people are likely to “stop and smell the roses.” This saying is actually a misquote from the golfer Walter Hagen, who actually said: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” We should be mindful to listen.