The heart’s content: Positive feelings may protect heart health

Psychological assets like optimism and positive emotion may offer protection against cardiovascular disease.

Let’s discuss the heart and brain connection. Numerous studies have shown that “negative” emotional states, such as anxiety, depression, and anger can affect cardiovascular health in a (you guessed it) negative way. But according to a recent publication, a “positive” state-of-mind may be the key to reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems.

In the first and largest systematic review on this topic to date, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers found that positive psychological “well-being” appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study was published online April 17, 2012 in Psychological Bulletin.

The American Heart Association reports more than 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease (CVD) each day, an average of one death every 39 seconds. Stroke accounts for about one of every 18 U.S. deaths.

“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that 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,” said lead author Julia Boehm, research fellow in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH. “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 said in a press release.

Boehm and senior author Laura Kubzansky, associate professor of society, human development, and health at HSPH found that psychological assets like optimism and positive emotion seem to offer protection against cardiovascular disease. The authors reviewed more than 200 published studies to discover that these factors slow the progression of disease.

Boehm and Kubzansky also investigated the association of well-being with cardiovascular-related health behaviors and biological markers. It probably comes as no surprise that individuals with a sense of well-being engaged in healthier behaviors, such as exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting sufficient sleep. Increased well-being was related to better biological function such as lower blood pressure and normal body weight.

If future research continues to indicate that higher levels of satisfaction, optimism, and happiness come before cardiovascular health, this has strong implications for the design of prevention and intervention strategies. “These findings suggest that an emphasis on bolstering psychological strengths rather than simply mitigating psychological deficits may improve cardiovascular health,” Kuzbansky said.

The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio through the grant “Exploring Concepts of Positive Health.”

“The Heart’s Content: The Association between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health,” Julia K. Boehm and Laura D. Kubzansky, Psychological Bulletin, online April 17, 2012.

Press release:



Leave a Reply: