How are positive emotions correlated to health? Do complex emotions, such as compassion, gratitude, and awe elicit beneficial physiological changes within individuals? Can experiencing awe through art serve a greater purpose than just being a “luxury”? These are just some of the questions Jennifer Stellar, a new assistant professor in UTM’s psychology department, hopes to discover through her research on “the positive side” of psychology.

Stellar’s journey to academia was not always focused on her current field of study. She began her undergraduate career intending to declare herself an anthropology major, with psychology as her minor. Stellar credits her undergraduate advisor, Paul Rozin, for encouraging her to pursue psychology and eventually apply to graduate school.

“I think I watched too many Indiana Jones movies and read too much National Geographic, so I went to undergrad as an anthropology major. I ended up really liking the psychology courses and began taking more and more of them,” Stellar explains. “I think Paul saw that I really loved the research process and I also clearly loved studying humans, that’s why I was originally interested in anthropology. But then I realized psychology offered me some methods that spoke to me about how we can quantify these very complicated human interactions and behaviours.”

As an undergraduate, Stellar’s experience with research ultimately pushed her to continue and pursue grad school.

“I found I really enjoyed research. It was always interesting to me that I could get paid to come up with ideas that I thought were interesting and test them. How is it possible that I can get paid to do that?” Stellar says. “I’ve just been very lucky to continue to do the thing I love, which is research.”

Following in the footsteps of her father’s career as a professor, Stellar joined the UTM faculty as an assistant professor in the department of psychology in September 2016.

Stellar explains that she has always been interested in the “positive side of psychology.” Much of her work revolves around researching positive emotions like empathy, compassion, and awe. She then looks at how people demonstrate signs of altruism. In the field of psychology, Stellar notes that there is less research regarding complex emotions, such as compassion, awe, and gratitude, in comparison to the research on basic emotions, like fear, sadness, anger, joy, and amusement.

“The complex emotions are inherently very social emotions, which is also why I was interested in them. They’re emotions that we feel almost exclusively in the context of others. They seemed to be the emotions that bind us to other people, hold individuals in committed relationships, romantic relationships, and hold friends together,” Stellar says. “I wanted those emotions to receive the same amount of research that fear and anger receive.”

Currently, Stellar is putting her questions and research into action through a collaborative study with the Royal Ontario Museum, which her team began a few weeks ago.

For the study, groups of participants will either visit an exhibit at the ROM or go to a controlled lab space at the University of Toronto St. George campus.

Stellar’s primary focus is on the emotion of awe, and she explains that the major ways individuals report feeling this emotion is through viewing art, listening to music, and being in nature. With the ROM, Stellar hopes to determine whether the experience of feeling awe can foster health benefits.

“What this study offers me is a real-world way to induce awe. I can do it in the lab, but I really like the idea of having people feel the emotion in the environment, that feels more real to me. It’s giving me the chance to look at how feeling awe can lead to better physiological outcomes,” Stellar says.

The participants are required to wear watches that will measure their heart rates, complete self-reports, and provide saliva samples so that markers, such as cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines, can be tested for possible reductions in negative health indicators.

“It would be nice to document the benefits and show that these institutions of art and music have a place in our society, and that they’re helping people not just be happy, but also healthy,” Stellar adds.

In future experiments, Stellar would like to use a sample of participants with health issues, such as the elderly, to see if the effects of feeling awe are even more profound with them. Currently, the participants are students from Rotman School of Management: average, well-adjusted, healthy individuals.

However, Stellar’s research doesn’t stop there. She also runs projects on studying compassion and morality. Through her work with compassion, she tries to understand why donations for international causes are so low, and why mass suffering actually produces lower emotional responses. With morality, she hopes to discover how people respond when their friends or romantic partners commit an unethical act, and how the psychological processes work there—which is something the world of psychology knows very little about.

What does Stellar hope to discover by the end of her current Toronto art study? Ultimately, she hopes to find that awe does offer health benefits, and that the experiment can give rise to a larger discussion about whether art and nature can be used as interventions to help individuals defend against some of their negative health outcomes.

“For many of us, we see these trips to museums or hikes as luxuries. I’m really busy, so it’s the first thing I stop doing whenever I’m out of time. But, I think that might not be the best way to look at things,” she says. “I think that in reality, those things serve an important purpose that we haven’t documented yet.”

“I would like to shift the dialogue into that realm; where people are more comfortable with recognizing that these aren’t just luxuries, but they’re actually important for our health and well-being.”