Px: 2 doses wonder, 1 dose joy

Have you ever had the feeling that your feelings affect your health? Have you noticed that a slump in your mood tends to correlate with your body feeling more sluggish or achey? Or perhaps, that when you are feeling optimistic your overall wellbeing seems as buoyant as your thoughts?

You're intuitively picking up on something that is now proven scientifically: our emotional and social wellbeing affects our health.

The links between negative emotion and poor health have been established through research by scientists including Janice Kiecolt-Glaser (Ohio State University) and Steve Cole (UCLA). They've both shown that negative emotions and stress from social isolation or exclusion can increase inflammation in your body. Negative emotions have been shown to change gene expression to produce the chemical messengers responsible for inflammation in the body.

This is important information, but also a tad discouraging. It is easier to focus on feeling good than it is to stop feeling down. The following research has now given us something good to focus on:

Recently, some links have been demonstrated between positive emotions and better health. Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto demonstrated a correlation between seven positive emotions (amusement, awe, joy, compassion, contentment, love and pride) and the pro-inflammatory signalling molecule IL-6. The higher the score of these positive emotions, the lower the IL-6 levels, and the lower the inflammation. The emotion that was most strongly correlated with reduced IL-6 was awe. "I feel wonder almost every day" was one of the questions that measured awe.

As a rheumatologist, I prescribe Tocilizumab (a medication that reduces the activity of IL-6) to my patients with rheumatoid arthritis when their disease is very active. We can measure the inflammation in their bodies with a blood test called CRP. Tocilizumab has very powerful effects on CRP and results in the improvement of joint inflammation in some rheumatoid arthritis. Imagine if we could achieve the same result by prescribing a sense of wonder!

So how can we increase awe in our lives? Seeing something for the very first time is always an awe-inspiring experience. (I can think of the expression on my children's faces when they first saw snow fall, for example). Unfortunately as we go through our lives, more and more of our daily existence becomes repetitive and less wonder-full. However, if you really think about it, each experience is never, and can never be, the same. Each moment, by its very nature, is different from the last. If we approach each moment with a sense of wonder as if for the very first time, we will feel a sense of awe in the everyday.

One practice a good friend of mine maintained for awhile was to take a photograph of something beautiful each day. This caused him to look with a little more care at things he might normally allow to pass by without notice. Before he knew it, he was seeing beauty everywhere, and in the most unexpected places. Another friend makes notes in her journal about something that surprised her every day. These practices open the taps on wonder, joy and all sorts of positive responses to the world around us.

Imagine: by deliberately taking pleasure in life itself, you will enjoy the downstream benefits of a healthier body. Now that's awe-inspiring!

Lucie Wilk