‘Fess up, folks—are you part of the glass half empty or the glass half full camp? Here’s good news for card-carrying members of the latter category: A new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) says that optimism could actually help prevent a heart attack.
While the impact of negativity and depression on numerous diseases has been well documented, the Harvard researchers decided to do an extensive review of studies detailing the connection between the benefits of positivity on cardiovascular health.
“We looked at all of the evidence available to date—any possible study that considered wellbeing with a disease-related outcome and biological data,” says lead author Julia Boehm, Ph.D., research fellow in the department of Society, Human Development and Health at HSPH, who, along with her colleagues, looked at more than 200 studies to make their conclusions. So why focus on cardiovascular health? “Cardiovascular disease [CVD] is the leading cause of death not just in America but worldwide, so it’s relevant to many people,” she explains. “In terms of measurement, it was clear in contrast to say, cancer, where people may have [the disease] for years, but with CVD there is a clear point of illness, so we can make stronger conclusions about where it occurs in relationship to well-being. There’s simply more data available.”
To put things in perspective, nearly 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, which is an average of one death every 39 seconds, according to the American Heart Association. Stroke accounts for about one out of every 18 deaths in the U.S.
With this focus in mind, the researchers then considered how to quantify an intangible like “happiness.” Generally speaking, defining wellbeing is complex, at best. The researchers evaluated optimism, in addition to hedonic happiness, which is the notion that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness, and eudaimonic happiness, which emphasizes self-realization, purpose and a more spiritual approach toward wellbeing. “All of these tend to be correlated,” notes Boehm, since more often than not the three qualities overlap in those who consider themselves to be happy individuals.
What Boehm and her team found was remarkable: Psychological assets such as optimism and positivity not only seemed to help protect against cardiovascular disease, but they also appeared to slow the progression of disease.
Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., attending cardiologist and director of Women and Heart Disease at the Lenox Hill Heart and Vascular Institute of New York, isn’t surprised by the findings. “Clinically, in my own experience, a patient's attitude has a huge impact on his or her health,” says Steinbaum. “Those who are more positive about their outcomes always seem to thrive compared to those who are more negative.”
Both Steinbaum and Boehm believe that this study will hopefully affect the way we treat—and more importantly—prevent CVD in the future. “We have known the connection between the mind and the heart and the negative psychosocial issues leading to heart disease, such as depression, anger, anxiety and hostility,” Steinbaum notes. “With this new analysis revealing a 50 percent reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event in those people who are most optimistic, discussing this issue with patients is a critical part of a prevention strategy.”
That said, telling someone who falls more on the pessimistic side to “be happy” is like saying, “Don’t think about pink elephants.” Still, having scientific proof that optimism can actually affect not just psychological wellbeing but also physical health is major motivation to strive to focus on the bright side of life. Luckily, there are plenty of strategies—from meditation to counseling to self-help books—readily at our disposal to help boost happiness.
And as for that ubiquitous drinking cup, we agree with what Steinbaum says: “Teaching a ‘glass half full’ approach to life may be just as important as giving an aspirin!”
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