Which positive emotion has the most “awesome” health benefits?

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The New York Times magazine this weekend will have an interesting article in its health column, The Well, about research into the health benefits of positive emotions.

The researchers were interested in looking at levels of a compound called interleukin-6, which is associated with general inflammation in the body. Low levels of interleukin-6 correspond to good health.

In the study, students were asked “about their normal dispositions and the extent to which they had recently felt seven specific emotions: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The students also provided a saliva sample. While happy moods were collectively still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awe-struck, the lower the IL-6.”

The lead author of the study, Dachel Keltner says that “a primary attribute of an awe-inspiring event is that it ‘will pass the goose-bumps test.’”

Rather to my surprise, the students in the study reported feeling awe three or more times a week. Unfortunately there wasn’t any indication of the circumstances under which they experienced this emotion, but Keltner points out that music and nature are common triggers of awe.

Keltner also suggests that we seek out awe, which I think is a great idea. It’s a feeling that doesn’t just confer health benefits, but which leads to life being more meaningful and enjoyable. I welcome the reminder to seek out awe. For me, there’s no need to listen to music or watch a sunset in order to experience awe; all I have to do is to become aware of how miraculous it is that I experience. Simply becoming aware that I am aware, and recognizing that I don’t even know what awareness is, is enough to trigger goosebumps. But music and sunsets are lovely too!

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