“The moment we cry in a film is not when things are sad but when they turn out to be more beautiful than we expected them to be.” ~Alain de Botton
(Scroll to the bottom to hear me read this article if you’re an auditory learner or just want to listen to my voice. 😉 )
Your brain is made of plastic.
Ok, not exactly. But it IS capable of profound change. It can be molded and shaped and is absolutely not fixed in its current state.
Which means that opportunities for transformation abound.
Especially when we consider the fact that the thoughts you think directly affect how your body functions. In surprising and important ways.
To show you what I mean, let’s look at some science super quick, shall we? (Bear with me here . . )
In a study from 2015, researchers discovered that if a test subject had an experience of awe during their day, their pro-inflammatory markers — cytokine IL-6, specifically — decreased, while an experience of shame led to a measurable increase in this same cytokine.
Another study demonstrated that pessimism correlated with increased inflammation in older men, while optimism resulted in a decrease in inflammatory markers and improved endothelial function (i.e. circulatory and heart health).
And a third study revealed similar results, looking specifically at post-menopausal women and finding that pessimism led to increased IL-6 — that inflammatory cytokine mentioned above — and an accelerated rate of telomere shortening (i.e. shortened length of DNA, indicative of reduced lifespan).
Whaaaat? I know.
Chinese medicine has been talking for centuries — literally — about the impact our emotional state has on our overall health. And now (finally!) science is starting to catch up and demonstrate with research that this is, in fact, absolutely true.
So what does this all mean for you?
It means thinking is not a benign activity.
It is intimately connected to all other systems in your body, and the content of your thoughts can result in measurable changes in how these systems function, including hormonal pathways and nervous system states and even digestion.
And while this has the potential to seem scary, it’s actually a rather amazing discovery that enables you to continue evolving throughout the entirety of your lifetime and highlights just how much power you have within you to determine the nature of your experiences.
It means that by intentionally adopting a more optimistic attitude and seeking out awe-inspiring moments or merely choosing to actually pay attention to them, you can positively affect your health, potentially decrease inflammation, and even live longer.
It is important to point out that this does not mean you should stuff or repress or ignore your less-than-joyful emotions when they arise. Not even close.
Sadness, grief, worry, and even anger are all healthy human emotions that serve a purpose in our lives.
The suggestion, therefore, is not to never feel these things because a) that would be impossible for the majority of us, and b) these emotional states are not inherently negative — although our culture would like you to believe they are.
These emotions are essential parts of a rich, full, human experience.
And optimism is not mutually exclusive with any of them. Neither is awe. Or even joy. The amazing thing about being a human is that you can absolutely hold multiple emotions in your body at the same exact time.
You are magic like that.
And you can absolutely grieve the loss of someone or something you love without forfeiting your generally optimistic outlook on the world.
I have previously written about the negativity bias, and talked about how our brains are wired to notice and remember negative events and stimuli more easily because doing so would have been vital to our survival throughout much of our evolution as a species.
After all . . . Lions! And tigers! And Bears! Etc!
I have also written about the idea that entertaining the worst case scenario doesn’t mean you are a total curmudgeon who is only capable of seeing the possible negative outcomes in your life.
Because, again, you can anticipate potential pitfalls without turning into a perpetual Negative Nancy. Magic, remember?
The more I research how our emotional states affect our physiology, the more I realize how important it is for us to make room for nuance and multiplicity in our emotional experience on a daily basis.
I’ve also realized that seeing everything through rose-colored glasses is not the same thing as having a mostly optimistic outlook. Because while the glasses color everything they see in that rosey hue without discernment, optimism can place extra emphasis on the joy and the awesomeness of the world without disregarding the heartache and the ugliness that also exists around you.
Optimism doesn’t totally filter out negativity. It simply prioritizes the positive and gives it a prominent seat at the table of your overall emotional experience. So that even in a moment of darkness, you might still encounter awe.
Because awe can be found everywhere.
If you look hard enough. If you’re willing to see it when it shows up.
Do me a favor today, ok? Regardless of what’s happening in your life right now, take 10 seconds (at least) and allow yourself to experience awe.
To feel legitimately awe-inspired.
Your telomeres and inflammatory markers will thank you.
(Look for an upcoming episode of the Curious & Curiouser Podcast to discuss these things in more detail. Hitting airwaves in about 10 days. Subscribe to the show to get immediate access went it goes live.)
Audio version of this article: