Harvard researchers suggest optimism, happiness and other positive emotions may help protect heart health and lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events. It also appears that these psychological well-being factors slow the progress of cardiovascular disease.

The findings are the result of the first and largest systematic review of its kind, and are reported in the 16 April online issue of Psychological Bulletin, by lead author Julia Boehm, a research fellow, and senior author Laura Kubzansky, an associate professor, in the department of society, human development, and health, at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in Boston, Massachusetts.

According to the American Heart Association, one person dies from cardiovascular disease every 39 seconds in the United States.

The authors explain that while numerous studies have shown negative psychological states such as anger, anxiety, hostility and depression may be bad for heart health, we know much less about how positive states are related to cardiovascular disease (CVD).

In a statement, Boehm tells the press that absence of negative states is not the same as presence of positive ones, and their findings suggest:

“… factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight.”

“For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers,” she adds.

For their review, Boehm and Kubzansky examined the results of more than 200 studies published in two major scientific databases.

As well as examining evidence linking positive psychological well-being and CVD, they looked for links with health behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, exercise, sleep, and diet, and also biological markers related to cardiovascular health.

They found that positive psychological well-being “protects consistently against CVD, independently of traditional risk factors and ill-being”, and that specifically, “optimism is most robustly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular events”.

They also found that people with a sense of well-being are more likely to exercise, follow a balanced diet, and get enough sleep and that more positive well-being was linked to lower blood pressure, healthier blood fat profiles, and normal body weight.

They suggest their findings have strong implications for how we intervene in public health and call for “additional prospective investigations and research that includes multiple constructs of psychological well-being and ill-being”.

Kuzbansky says if research continues to show that higher levels of positive emotions like optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness precede cardiovascular health, then the message for public health is that:

“… an emphasis on bolstering psychological strengths rather than simply mitigating psychological deficits may improve cardiovascular health.”

Funds from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped support the study.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD