The first time you see a lion on the great plains of Africa, it fills you with wonder. While watching a grizzly bear catch salmon at Brooks Falls in Alaska, you can’t help but feel admiration for its superior fishing skills. Being present for a sunrise in the Grand Canyon inspires a sense of reverence in you that you weren’t sure you were still capable of feeling. Another word for all of these perceptions is “awe.”
While we all know experiencing awe is a mental mood enhancer, it turns out that it also provides physical health benefits. According to a recent University of California, Berkeley, study published in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion in April 2015, the feeling of awe we get during encounters with art, nature and spirituality has an anti-inflammatory effect, protecting the body from chronic disease.
I think, however, there’s another beneficial mind-body aspect to nature travel that rarely receives its proper due in these times of “last-minute deals” and “all-inclusive vacation packages”: the feeling of happiness—and the resultant bodily health bonuses—the mere act of anticipation provides.
Awe is most commonly inspired by being in nature
While previous studies have shown that feeling awe can help create a sense of having enough time in the day, the University of California, Berkeley, investigation is one of the first to report awe’s anti-inflammatory effects.
In the study, titled Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, two separate groups of young adults were asked how much they experienced positive emotions such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy and pride on a given day. Then the researchers took samples of the participants’ gum and cheek tissue to measure cytokine levels. Cytokines are markers that put the immune system on high alert by triggering a defensive reaction, which is known as inflammation. While inflammation is essential for fighting disease and infection when our bodies are faced with a specific threat, chronically high levels of cytokines have been linked to a number of health problems, including Alzheimer’s, autoimmune conditions, depression and heart disease.
The gum and cheek tissue samples revealed that for both groups, those who had felt awe, amazement or wonder on those particular days had lower levels of cytokines and, therefore, less inflammation in their bodies.
The study also found that experiencing awe was most commonly inspired by being in nature, followed by witnessing the impressive feats of others, participating in spiritual and religious events, and engaging with art and music.
Anticipation is making me wait—and keeping me happy and healthy
As a way to tease me, my friends have sometimes called me “the planner.” Their purpose is to point out that I’m not quite as spontaneous as they are. But researchers from the Netherlands have my back: according to them, my planning—and thus having the time to anticipate my trips—may be making me happier. And being happy has physical health benefits, such as reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.
In a 2010 study published in Applied Research in Quality of Life, the journal of the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies, levels of happiness among 1,530 Dutch adults—974 of whom took a vacation during the 32-week study period—were gauged. Results showed that the largest boost in happiness came from the simple act of planning a vacation. According to the study, “For most, the enjoyment starts weeks, even months, before the holiday actually begins.”
And in a study by Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laurence Ashworth of Queen’s University published in 2007 in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, it was found that students felt happier while anticipating a vacation than while reminiscing about the trip.
I’m excited to tell you that I’m going on a trip this summer to photograph Alaska’s coastal grizzlies. I can’t wait.
Or perhaps—for the sake of my health—I can.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,