The beauty of a night sky or painting may lower risk for inflammation, found a study published in the journal Emotion.

Researchers conducted two experiments designed to measure the affect positive emotions, such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love, and pride, have on the cytokine Interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker for inflammation. More than 200 young adults participated in the experiments, mostly self-reporting their emotions on a given day. Afterward, researchers took samples of their gum and cheek tissue to measure levels of IL-6.

The results supported researchers’ hypothesis: Positive emotions are associated with lower levels of IL-6. What’s more is awe in particular was the strongest predictor for low levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, even when samples were controlled for relevant personality and health variables.  

"That awe, wonder, and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy," Dacher Keltner, co-author of the study and psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley, said in a press release.

Prior research has found high levels of cytokines are associated with poor health and disease, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Keltner and her team cited one study found depressed patients had higher levels of the cytokine known as TNF-alpha compared to non-depressed patients. Some experts believe cytokines work to block the hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate mood, appetite, sleep, and memory.

Jennifer Stellar, lead study author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, said awe is otherwise associated “with curiosity and a desire to explore,” which would suggest these behaviors don’t match up to the behavior responses of those with inflammation; patients with inflammation typically withdraw from their environment.

Business Insider reported awe reduces stress in people, at the same time it inspires them to act more generously. BI added it’s the idea an awe-inspiring experiences “gets us out of our own heads…encourage us to look at the world inquisitively and feel more at ease.”

One caveat: Researchers are still figuring out which comes first, low levels of IL-6 or positive emotions, like awe.

“It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions,” she said, “or that the relationship is bidirectional.”

Source: Stellar JE, et al. Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion. 2015.