How Awe and Other Positive Emotions Help Us Manage Diabetes Inflammation

The Awe Inspiring Site of the Grand Canyon

The Awe Inspiring Site of the Grand Canyon

(My Photograph from the North Rim)

We manage our diabetes better when we feel positive emotions, the most important of which is awe. This is the conclusion of research that the American Psychological Association’s professional journal Emotion will publish.

Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, is the lead author of a study linking emotions and those proteins in our bodies that regulate inflammation. It connects with earlier studies had linked those proteins with the development of diabetes.

The abstract of the study, rather than the full article, is online at “Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation.” But the press office of the University of California, Berkeley, where Dr. Stellar did her research, sent me the draft of her study.

Positive Emotions Feel Good and Are Good

We have long known that negative emotions and poor health are linked, Dr. Stellar writes. “But only recently has research begun to acknowledge the important role of positive emotions for our physical health.” Her new study “demonstrates that positive emotions not only feel good; they are good for the body,” Dr. Stellar says.

The new study zeroed in on amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love, and pride, all of which are positive emotions, she writes. But the awe that we can feel when we connect with nature, art, or spirituality “had the strongest relationship of any positive emotion.”

The protein involved in this linkage is a type of pro-inflammatory cytokine called interleukin-6, explains UC Berkeley psychology professor Dr. Dacher Keltner, one of the study’s coauthors. “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.”

The Most Important is Awe

Of all the positive emotions that we feel, why does awe do the most good? “Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore,” Dr. Stellar says. “This suggests antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment.”

The study was based on two separate experiments testing more than 200 young adults. They reported on how much they had experienced these seven positive emotions. The researchers took samples of gum and cheek tissue that same day. The samples showed that those who experienced more of these positive emotions had the lowest level of the pro-inflammatory cytokine called interleukin 6, which is a prime marker of inflammation.

Several earlier studies had connected elevated levels of these pro-inflammatory cytokines to the onset and progression of diabetes as well as other chronic diseases. Most relevant to those of us who have diabetes, however is the study, “Inflammation, stress, and diabetes,” in The Journal of Clinical Investigation. You can read the full-text of that study free online.

When we are full of awe, diabetes isn’t awful. Our life can be awesome.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Helen Mueller at

    Jane, hope every day finds you better and better. My middle name, btw. I am writing to say that I agree with you; spirituality is the medium that helps us get the most out of love, beauty and awe.

  • Jane at

    My experience of chronic pain stretches over 10 years now. The various ways I sought relief helped but I now see that different approaches correspond with a person’s belief system. Prior to finding a god of my own understanding, I tried to control the pain. Now that I have a belief in god my lifestyle uses contemplative prayer in both all things. And yes, this topic is super-relevant to me today. A week ago I had a spinal fusion and during the initial recovery time, I could barely pray. I’m just now returning to that practice through the pain and wooziness of narcotics.

    For me, this is a really deep subject. I recently finished reading a book by a counselor specializing in pain & dying where he encouraged people to let go of the model of battling anything because it supports the idea that if I fail at managing the pain/diabetes/whatever then I didn’t try hard enough. This all made sense to me. I now love my conditions and know that I’m doing the best I can on any given day.

    There are so many people living in chronic pain [including emotional pain] that I try to remember to be gentle. To look at me you wouldn’t have known my nerve and spinal pain was so intense.

  • Helen Mueller at

    When I say my body remains the same, I mean nothing is cured. But, hopefully, by getting as many positive experiences, that will bring about positive bodily chemicals, I won’t get another cancer. OTOH, I do not blame my four cancers on myself.

  • Helen Mueller at

    hey deb, not a pi**ing contest. I meant my comment only in a positive way. I know what sickness is, my diabetes is the least of it. But I also know, that for me, beauty gives life meaning, when life has become pretty much meaningless. I don’t think I am ill because I am not a pollyanna, nor do I feel that about others. I just agree with the original article about awe and how it can overcome, not eliminate, some aspects of illness and pain. When I go back into the house, tho I feel better inside my head, my body remains the same.

  • deb at

    I just don’t want this to become another one of those things were victims of a disease are “blamed” for being sick because they were not positive enough to overcome it, the way our society blames cancer victims. The less positive people are likely were the sickest ones and not necessarily because they didn’t try hard enough. I have friends who have chronic pain and while doing positive things can help them manage the symptoms and boost their mood, they still have a bad condition that they can’t just will away.

  • Helen Mueller at

    deb, I do have chronic pain and inflammation, dating back at least 20 years. But I have found I cannot stand to be with myself when I am wracked with depression and negativity because of it. So I have sought for ways out of the bottom and grab onto all I can. My five cats are a great help, petting them and kissing them releases positive hormones. Walking outside the house, feeling the sun on my skin and filling other senses with the beauty of the flowers pushes the pain away. As you say, it may be harder; but it definitely is not impossible. For me, the effort is well worth the reward.

  • deb at

    Of course, it is harder to feel those positive things if you already have chronic pain and inflammation .

  • Helen Mueller at

    My husband grows flowers. He is retired, so can micromanage the flower beds and they are always stunning. We live in CA, so our growing season is long. Spring is the best time as the roses wake up, and other perennials come back to life. Every day there are changes, and every day I go out and walk slowly around, looking at every flower. The beauty gives me the best part of my day. Flowers inspire awe and waft out peace with their fragrances. I stick my nose everywhere; someday I am going to meet up with an annoyed bee!

  • Allan at

    When I count it all joy and see my cup as half full then half empty. I am in awe
    negative leans toward hate, destruction and fixation

  • David Mendosa at

    Dear Jane,

    I think you make a great point about awe and love being linked. Now that you mention it, I know that I completely agree. Thank you for your valuable comment.

    With metta,

  • Jane at

    Interesting emotions that were selected. I haven’t thought this through entirely, but for me, Love is linked to Awe and my spiritual foundation. So when I am in awe I’m also in love/seeing the love given to me by God. This is a deep topic to me. And goodness knows I want to keep inflammation to a minimum.