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,
Delaying gratification, and creating anticipation, was shown to increase self motivation, dependability and a higher IQ in children, that stayed with them after they grew up (Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and subsequent follow up with the same students vs. a control group, in 2011). Another great reason to travel.
As a USDA Forest Service Landscape Architect, I have the pleasure of assisting forests in managing their scenic resources. Here is a quote from Lady Bird Johnson that we use frequently. ““Our peace of mind, our emotions, our spirit – even our souls are conditioned by what our eyes see.”
I suggest that for reasons of social equity and environmental sustainability it is essential that awe can be experienced close to home. This requires planning for the protection of natural heritage close to or within population centres.
Sounds good to me!
Just got back from Thula Thula in KwaZulu, Natal, and I must say that, while I worked very hard, I felt very energized.
Glad to hear this. I just returned from a 2 week photo safari in Tanzania and felt in awe every day. Good to know what was good for the soul is also good for the body.
I can admit that seeing nature does reflect a great wonder of the world. I know that one of my best experience of that was visiting the seashore.
First with Cancun when I was in middle school. The beaches of Jamaica in Montego Bay when I was in High school. Then going to a beach owned by the Royal Caribbean of last year while still in college.
What I am saying is that seeing the beauty of the sea really makes me feel one with the nature, and the globe. Since getting in the water makes feel one with the waters of the Earth. It helps remind me that we all share this earth, and should do are best to try to protect and preserve it.
I’m intrigued by the research. Thank you for sharing it here.
It reminds me of some trips with my sister and our Mom who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. One trek was to the Adirondacks. Another was cross state from CT to Western NY in a borrowed RV. We stayed overnight in gorgeous campgrounds and visited friends in the Finger Lakes region and on Lake Erie. Our family, when young, had traveled/camped quite a bit, so these later trips with Mom renewed an old beloved passtime for the three of us. It was a bit risky, and I experienced some stress. As the primary caregiver, my attention was often focused on Mom. But, she did well and seemed enlivened.
A few years after that, I took a break from caregiving and went way up to Cunningham Inlet on Somerset Island in Nunavut. I was determined to see how beluga whales live in the wild. We visitors were asked to be quiet, to do nothing to disturb the whales (who were still aware of our presence). To me they are beautiful, remarkable animals. We hiked the shore and climbed the hills where we spotted ringed seals just off shore and musk ox grazing on the tundra. It was a trip full of wonders. I was excited for months before departing on the trip, too.
My Arctic trip was 3 years ago, yet, I get some of that sense of wonder back just writing this comment.
Like you, Debbie, I do think reflection after you get home is a big part of taking a trip. For me, it sometimes trumps everything else! Thanks for the comment. —C.G.A.
I’m always uplifted and lightened by your writing
I appreciate your kind comment! Thank you. I’ll be smiling all day. —C.G.A.
So I have been work travelling for health benefits – Awe and Anticipation!
Thoroughly enjoy your posts. A love of nature is a gift I received from my parents, my father particularly, that keeps on giving! Nothing like connecting your energy with that of nature.
I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you very much.
That is a great gift from your parents. How fortunate you are. —C.G.A.
Excellent. Very good for slowing the effects of Aging and the mind also. The wonder and challenges of travel make your brain and your body active.
Candice, I enjoy your contributions. Thank you, and keep it up!
Thank you very much, Chris! —C.G.A.
Right on, Carol!
Thomas Sawyer, I agree with the life balance of outdoor life and work. It is a catalyst of health and happiness.
Another aspect of the health benefits also include escaping the city-that of which in my opinion, is as equally harmful as nature is beneficial. Happy trails on your trip to Alaska, and don’t forget to write!
Thank you, Thomas. I “anticipate” coming home with lots of stories!