A beautiful sunrise that suffuses you with peace. A painting that inspires you and moves you to create your own art. The clear night sky whose expanse of stars makes you feel insignificant and significant at the same time.
While it may be difficult to put these experiences into words, there are times when you feel a connection happening inside. It’s as if seemingly separate parts of yourself come together, or everything between you and the rest of the world dissolves, and suddenly you feel acutely alive.
Recent research into these states of harmony has discovered they are an important key to unlocking greater physical health.
A study from U.C. Berkeley examined the link between happy moments and healthy bodies. It looked at the amazement and awe people feel when they "are touched by the beauty of nature, art, and spirituality."
“Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health,” said Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study.
The study showed that beyond good nutrition, sleep, and exercise, emotion is an essential ingredient in the recipe for health. It turns out that “positive” emotions trigger an anti-inflammatory effect in the body and immune system.
“A walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a coauthor of the study.
Stellar explains, “Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment.”
Feeling hurt and disappointed can be a huge mental and physical burden. Forgiveness, while a seemingly psychological exercise, can actually improve the health of the physical body. The act of forgiveness has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol and sleep, and provide pain relief.
Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, recommends forgiveness. “It [forgiveness] is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not,” Swartz said.
Once we make a choice to forgive a person, we can empathize with them. That seemingly external connection helps to release an internal burden, making room for better emotional and physical health.
The Natural Way
We intuitively know the power of a walk outside to get fresh air and clear our heads. From Thoreau to Cheryl Strayed, writers have extolled the healing powers of nature for centuries.
Today, the Walk Off the War program for veterans transitioning from their military service also emphasizes the therapeutic benefits of walking in nature to help decompress and return to civilian life.
Research has found many physical benefits to spending time outside, including strengthening our immune systems. Forest bathing has been recognized as a therapeutic practice since the 1980s by Japan's Forest Agency. The health benefits for kids spending time outside has been well-documented, too.
If you can't get outside, it turns out seeing nature from your window can still help. According to research, patients recover from surgery faster and have fewer post-surgical complications when they have a view of nature from their room.
And preliminary data indicates that there is a positive effect on behavior and health of prisoners who are unable to see outside, when they are shown images and videos of the natural world.
We may not know exactly how these experiences make us more healthy, but since we know they do, we can intentionally practice them as part of living a healthy life.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies