Why The World Needs More Wonder (Part Two)
"I really think [awe] is something that we all need. It's an emotion that somehow makes us more human, in a way that we've lost."
~ David Delgado
Photo taken by Patrick Kelley
In Part One of Why the World Needs More Wonder, we touched mostly on the social benefits of awe, how this magnificent emotion helps orient us towards each other and helps us feel like we are a part of a larger whole. As awe helps us step outside of our day-to-day issues, we are imbued with a greater sense of care for each other, a greater willingness to donate, to be both more generous with our time and our resources, to volunteer, to give to one another, and to lend a helping hand. Studies have shown that even fleeting moments of awe can help reduce hubris, narcissism, materialism, and a narrowly self-centered focus. As Dacher Keltner said, "amazingly, awe tends to be the counterpoint to these cultural issues we're caring about. It expands the self, it makes you more generous, it brings into focus your purpose in the world, it gives you a lot of creativity, and it also is very good for your nervous system."
Since humans are a social species, these socially-orienting results of awe are important for our well-being. A neuroscientist friend of mine recently commented on how easy it is to induce depression in a rat or even a human: just socially isolate them. It's that simple and reliable. So having more experiences of awe, however fleeting, have significant impacts on our wellbeing and ability to flourish. But that is not where the benefits of awe stop!
In Part Two of Why the World Needs More Wonder, we will look at how wonder and awe impact our health, wellbeing, and creativity, and how they can help spark novel insights and innovation. And in a world facing increasingly escalating global challenges, having more thriving, healthy, compassionate humans that feel they belong in a larger cosmos and are inspired to create innovative solutions to the world's needs is not something to be overlooked.
5. Awe is Associated with Decreased Inflammation
Researchers have started investigating the relationship between our health, specifically, our levels of inflammation, and what scientists call our "prosocial" emotions, such as joy, connection, and love. In this study, Stellar said that out of all of the prosocial emotions that they tested, "awe, measured in two different ways, was the strongest predictor of lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines." But what are cytokines, you might ask?
Cytokines are part of the immune system. There are both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. In the case of acute injury, say, getting a splinter, inflammation is a natural and necessary part of the healing response. But it gets us in trouble when we find ourselves with chronic inflammation. When this happens, a cascade of detrimental effects start to take place.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to many debilitating diseases. As Dr Zach Bush said, in the Collective Insights podcast from Neurohacker Collective, "we now know that everything from your neurodegenerative disorders to asthma to allergies, all the way down to cancer and Alzeimers, dementia,... all of this is just a spectrum of chronic inflammation manifesting in different organ systems." Daniel, the head of R&D at Neurohacker replied, "and even neuropsych in the last couple years - depression as an inflammatory issue has just really started to catch on."
When someone has an infection or gets the flu, a surge of pro-inflammatory cytokines are released. These cytokines act in the brain to induce common symptoms of sickness, such as a desire for isolation, loss of energy, loss of appetite, aching joints, sleepiness, fatigue, and a desire to withdraw from normal social activities. This is often called "sickness behavior." In the case of the flu, this response would make evolutionary sense in order to help prevent the spread of germs as well as help to support the healing process. But when someone experiences chronic inflammation, such as in the case of a reaction to toxins in the environment, those same responses occur but in an ongoing fashion. This begins to look a lot like what we call depression. Indeed, the inflammation theory of depression is gaining more traction. (Source, source, source)
It is important to remember that research into inflammation and prosocial emotions is still new, and more studies are necessary to fully understand causality and mechanisms of action. I can, however speak on behalf of my own experience. For better or for worse, chronic inflammation is something I have become quiet familiar with, as I've been struggling with toxic mold illness, one of the main results of which is chronic inflammation. I intend to write more about my thoughts on environmental toxicity and inflammation and why this is a bigger issue than many of us realize, in a future article. For now I can say that for my whole life I've had an active practice of seeing through the eyes of wonder, awe, reverence and a sense of the sacred in all things. But in the last number of years, notedly, the same years in which I've struggled the most with chronic inflammation, I've become greatly reinvigorated by these topics. There were times when going on my "Wonder Walks," was the only reason I could muster enough energy to get out of bed. Consciously cultivating a sense of wonder and awe has been one of the most helpful 'medicines' on my healing journey with inflammation. I consider it my "Awe Therapy."
So because of inflammation's connection with depression, chronic or degenerative diseases, reducing inflammation is an important consideration for living a more flourishing joyful life. Adding in more awe and wonder might be part of the Awe Therapy that we all need!
6. Experiencing a Positive State Change Can Help Start an Upward Spiral
“The difference between peak performance and poor performance is not intelligence or ability; most often it’s the state that your mind and body is in.” ~ Tony Robbins
With the daily barrage of news headlines that is likely to give even the most centered of us a jolt of anxiety, the ability to shift into a positive emotional state is a helpful tool for navigating these chaotic times. Tony Robbins, one of the masters of managing states and helping millions to do the same, says, "I would say the quality of your life is not only the quality of your communication but it's really based upon your ability to manage states. Maybe your goal should be an effective state manager, because by managing your states you manage emotions and thus your behaviors in life" (source).