Happiness and your heart

Being an optimist is a good thing.

Yet another study, this one by the Harvard School of Public Health, has found that having a positive, optimistic outlook may significantly reduce risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke.

In fact, researchers say that study participants who are the most optimistic face 50 per cent less risk of a first heart attack than their least optimistic counterparts.

More than 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, an average of one death every 39 seconds, according to the American Heart Association. Stroke is responsible for about one of every 18 U.S. deaths. And according to Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, heart disease and stroke are two of the three leading causes of death in this country, with someone dying every 7 minutes from either cardiovascular disease or stroke.

For the Harvard study, published online in Psychological Bulletin, researchers wanted to look at how positive psychological characteristics are linked to heart health. Previous studies have shown that negative states — such as depression, anger, and anxiety – are harmful to cardiovascular health, but less was known about the influence of positive characteristics.

“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive,” lead author Julia Boehm said in a news release. “We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD [cardiovascular disease] regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight.”

In what is being called the first and largest systematic review on this topic to date, Harvard researchers looked at more than 200 published studies that examined the role of a positive outlook on cardiovascular health.

Findings indicated that optimism, in particular, seemed to play a key role in protecting the heart. “For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50 per cent reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers,” Boehm said.

Higher levels of satisfaction, optimism and happiness and were also linked to healthier blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. And people with a better sense of well being were also more likely to engage in healthy lifestyle habits such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, getting sufficient sleep and avoiding smoking.

What the study doesn’t tease out is if healthy habits — like eating well and exercising regularly — make a person feel more positive, or it is optimism itself that inspires better lifestyle choices.

Previous research has suggested that people with a more positive outlook have better immunity against illnesses like the common cold, more effective coping skills and less unhealthy, negative stress. Studies have also indicated that optimistic people decrease their risk of early death by 50 per cent compared to those who were more pessimistic. (See Will your personality affect how long you live?)

Good news, perhaps, for the natural optimists among us. But what about those people who are hard-wired to be more pessimistic?

 "That’s a hard question. There’s no magic happy pill," cardiologist Elizabeth Jackson, a professor at the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press. "Sometimes it’s hard, particularly in tough economic times, but taking a moment to just relax and enjoy a sunny day might be good heart health."

Can you re-train your brain?

So if you’re not a natural optimist, can you change the way you think — and become more upbeat?

Experts say yes, that with practice, people can basically retrain their brains to think more positively. Mainly this has to do with monitoring — and changing, if necessary — the ‘self-talk’ or the automatic stream of thoughts that runs through your head, endlessly, every day. These thoughts can be either negative or positive, and can be based on logic or on misconceptions and lack of information.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some common forms of negative self-talk include:

Filtering. This happens when you magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. For instance, after a fantastically productive day at work, you might suddenly realize you forgot one task — and it is this task you focus on instead of the ones you did accomplish.

Personalizing. In this case, when something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself. Did your company lose an important account? You think it must be entirely your fault — when in reality other factors came into play.

Catastrophizing. This happens when you automatically anticipate the worst in any given situation. Your boss asks to see you? It must be bad news.

Polarizing. In this instance there is no middle ground: You view things as either good or bad, black or white. You feel that you have to be perfect or that you’re a total failure.

Silencing the internal critic

Instead of automatically giving in to them, experts say to challenge your negative thoughts. You can weed out negative self-talk by replacing thoughts that are based on irrational thinking with rational, positive ones.

If you’re feeling out of the loop at the office, for example, instead of saying to yourself: “No one bothers to communicate with me”, say instead, “I’ll see if I can open the channels of communication.”

Over time, if you continue to do this, your self-talk will gradually become more realistic and self-affirming. It is possible to transform negative thoughts into positive ones, but like creating any new habit, it takes time and practice.

A good place to start, experts say, is by following one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else.

Sources: Harvard School of Public Health news release; Mayo Clinic; Associated Press, USNews.com