Putting stock in awe: U of T researcher explores impact of positive emotions on your health

Having good feelings may be good for your health, U of T's Jennifer Stellar says. And she's launching a new study to explore how and why that works.

Stellar studies positive emotions, such as compassion, contentment, joy and awe – and how those feelings elicit physiological changes that affect our immunity, stress and overall physical and mental health.

“Gratitude, compassion and awe may be the most important of the positive emotions,” she says. “Those feelings bind us to other people, strengthen our relationships and help us behave in prosocial ways. These emotions can also have some of the most powerful effects on health and well-being.”

Much research in the field has focused on the impact of negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, embarrassment, disgust or shame. But Stellar, who joined U of T Mississauga's department of psychology as an assistant professor in September 2016, says we have a lot to learn from the flip side of those feelings.

“When we’re stressed, injured or ill, the body releases proinflammatory cytokines, which regulate our immune systems,” she says. “I’m curious about how we might reduce this effect, and how positive emotions could minimize the inflammation response and potentially the cortisol response.”

To prove that point, Stellar is putting hard data behind the ephemeral feeling of awe.

“Awe is a grand emotion with powerful outcomes. Art, nature, people and music are just some of the things that can elicit that feeling," she says. “People who feel a lot of awe seem to have lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines, but we need to measure that in a controlled way.”

In a study launching this fall, Stellar’s Health, Emotions, & Altruism Laboratory (HEALTH Lab) will study the biological and emotional responses of 300 people recruited to view a Toronto art exhibit. The team will collect data on heart and respiration rates, along with cortisol levels and proinflammatory cytokines in saliva samples. 

“The hope is that we will see that feeling awe leads to lower levels of inflammation and cortisol, and that we will see the body calm down, too,” Stellar says. “These outcomes will help us to understand or legitimize these emotions and show that positive emotions have a relationship with physical health.

“They are doing a lot of heavy lifting in ways we don’t realize.”

The results could change how we approach physical and mental health. she says.

“We could prioritize cultivating positive emotions like awe and gratitude,” Stellar says. “Go walk in the woods. Go to a symphony. See some art. Devote time to these emotions because they aren’t luxuries. It could be good for your own health.”

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