Spirituality, Art, and Nature Linked To Better Health

One more reason to stop and smell the roses.

Think about what stirs a sense of awe in you. Is it the smell of a trail during an early morning hike? Watching ocean waves crash onto the beach? Discussing a piece of under-appreciated art? Meditating and feeling one with the present? Whatever gives you a sense of inspiration, keep doing it. It may be benefitting your health.

A new study performed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley has found a connection between lower levels of pro-inflammatory proteins and time spent enjoying nature, art, or spiritual activities. 

"Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health," Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study, said in a press release.

The researchers asked over 200 young adults how much time they spent each day engaging in activities that filled them with a sense of wonder, awe, and inspiration. Each respondent also gave a cheek swab sample, which Stellar's team analyzed. They found that those who spent the most time on positive pursuits each day had the least amount of proteins that indicate inflammation in the body.

The pro-inflammatory proteins identified in the study are cytokines called Interleukin 6. These are typically used by the body to rally the immune system and fight infections, but they can be quite harmful in excess. Elevated levels of cytokines have been linked to a number of autoimmune diseases including arthritis, type 2 diabetes and the number one global killer: heart disease. Excessive cytokines have also been implicated in affecting mental health by interrupting the normal function of hormones and neurotransmitters, disturbing sleep, memory, and mood. 

"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 -- has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy," added co-author Dacher Keltner.

Though the researchers found a correlation between positivity and lower cytokines, it hasn't been entirely clear what the biological mechanism is, or which of the two causes the connection. Are people with lower cytokines naturally drawn to positive experiences, or does engaging in awe-inspiring activities lower cytokine levels? Is it a little of both? The researchers can't say for sure.

"It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional," Stellar explained.

Looking for other simple ways to keep your body and psyche in balance? Make sure to get enough sleep, drink enough water, and exercise daily.

Original photos by Matt Paish and Garrett Gill.