If you are generally positive, happy, and content, you may be protected against heart disease. Researchers at Columbia University, New York, studied 1739 adults for 10 years and found that “happy” or “positive” participants had fewer heart attacks. Previous studies found an association between being positive, happy, or content and good health, but this is the first study to look specifically at heart disease.
The study population was roughly evenly divided between men and women (862 men, 877 women). The study was controlled for age, sex, and cardiovascular risk. The researchers assessed the risk of heart disease of the participants at the beginning of the study. They measured positive or pleasurable emotions (positive affect) such as joy, excitement, happiness, enthusiasm, and contentment by using structured interviews, done by trained nurses. They also assessed behavior and display of emotions by trained observers. The degree of “positive affect” was rated on a scale from 1-5. The researchers found that brief periods of “negative affect” like anger, hostility, anxiety, and depression did not change the results for the generally positive or happy people. There was a 22 percent risk reduction in coronary heart disease for each one-point increment in positive affect on the five point scale (Davidson, K.W. et al.).
The mechanism by which positive attitudes or emotions confer long-term protection from heart disease is not known, but the researchers hypothesize that it works by influencing the heart rate, sleeping patterns, and smoking cessation. A study in 2009 in the journal Psychophysiology showed that positive affect was associated with lower blood pressure and lowered post-waking levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another study (Nicotine Tab. Res., 2009) found that individuals with positive affect have fewer urges to smoke during smoking cessation treatment. Longer periods of rest and relaxation may also help individuals to recover more quickly from stress, which is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The results of this study are important if they can be used to prevent or treat heart disease. New studies need to show that interventions in the life of patients to generate more pleasure, joy, or relaxation have an effect on cardiovascular disease. Such interventions are often used in psychotherapy to treat depression. Randomly controlled clinical trials to increase positive affect in cardiopulmonary patients are currently in progress.
Davidson, K.W. et al. Don’t worry, be happy: positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: The Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey. European Heart Journal (2010) DOI:10.1093/euroheart/ehp603