Be Happy — It'll Help Your Heart, Study Finds

by Lulu Chang

If ever you needed a reason to turn that frown upside down, boy have a I got one for you — according to a new study, optimistic people have healthier hearts and are also generally healthier overall. So seriously, don't worry, be happy — it could save your life. Researchers from the University of Illinois recently published their findings in the journal, Health Behavior and Policy Review, where they detailed their study which followed 5,100 adults between the ages of 45 and 84. According to their findings, optimistic people, or those with a positive outlook on life, "were between 50 and 76 percent more likely to have health scores in the intermediate to ideal ranges, when compared to others in the study." Better yet, for every point participants scored on the optimism scale, they reduced their chance of stroke by 8 percent.

As lead author Rosalba Hernandez explained, "Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts." She also noted, "This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health." Scientists measured participants' cardiovascular health using the seven standard metrics set forth by the American Heart Association: blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use. In each category, participants could be awarded between 0 and 2 points, with the numbers corresponding to poor, intermediate and ideal scores, respectively.

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Researchers then asked their subjects to complete individual assessments of their own mental health, including self-reporting their levels of optimism. They were also asked whether they suffered from other common diseases, like arthritis, liver and kidney disease. Surprisingly enough, as levels of optimism went up, so too did their cardiovascular health scores. Moreover, optimists had healthier body mass indexes, were less likely to smoke, and were more likely to participate in physical activity, leading to an overall sense of wellbeing. In comparison, those who considered themselves more pessimistic maintained considerably higher chances of stroke and heart attack, regardless of socioeconomic status. So apparently, it's true what they say — money really can't buy happiness, which in this case, also means health.

The novel study is believed to be the first to examine the relationship between optimism and cardiovascular health on a large scale, taking into account a diverse sample population as its subject matter. Participants were 38 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino and 12 percent Chinese. Those were were more optimistic also had healthier blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and these findings provide even further evidence of a distinct, measurable correlation between psychological and physiological well-being.

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Said Hernandez, "This evidence...suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being - e.g., optimism - may be a potential avenue for [the American Heart Association (AHA)] to reach its goal of improving Americans' cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020," and all by improving people's outlook on life.

The study has been ongoing for the last 11 years, with participants first asked for data in July of 2000. Researchers followed their subjects for over a decade, collecting information every 18 to 24 months. This detailed data collection method has provided Hernandez and her colleagues with a treasure trove of health information, and Hernandez noted, "We now have available data to examine optimism at baseline and cardiovascular health a decade later."

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Not only does optimism seem to be associated with greater overall health, but according to a smaller 2012 study at Harvard University, being happier also protects people against heart disease. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, which gave researchers pause when they came across these initial findings three years ago, but as further studies have been completed, it seems that higher levels of happiness, hope and general optimism really can have an impact on your heart health.

While it has long been accepted that stress, depression and anxiety are bad for cardiovascular well-being, with the AHA publishing a report in 2014 that showed that those with high depressive symptoms were 86 percent more likely to have a stroke, those with chronic stress were 59 percent more likely to suffer heart problems, and those with high hostility scores were twice as likely to be similarly encumbered, the effects of happiness have not been as clearly outlined. But now, the bottom line seems to be that being happy and having a healthy heart are quite inextricably intertwined.

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So is it possible to change your personality to become more optimistic? According to some psychologists, it absolutely is — you can, as Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today writes, choose to see the glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Bergland writes,

Through daily choices that include things like, maintaining a strong social network, physical activity, a sense of humor, mindfulness training and loving-kindness meditation (LKM)... I believe that anyone can re-wire his or her brain to be more optimistic, grateful, satisfied, and upbeat—while simultaneously becoming less hostile, stressed, and depressed.
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So do what you need to do — yoga, pet kittens, play the piano, eat chocolate, write a book, whatever. But find your ray of sunshine and help protect your heart.

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