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Happiness and heart health

To ward off heart disease, you might want to lose weight. Quit smoking. Manage your cholesterol and blood pressure. And maybe you should stop being such a sourpuss.

Researchers led by Karina Davidson at Columbia University Medical Center analyzed 10 years of data about 1,739 healthy adults who participated in the 1995 Nova Scotia Health Survey. In short, they found that those who had what psychologists call "positive affect"--a generally upbeat, enthusiastic and content view of life--had a lower risk of heart disease than those with less cheery demeanors.

Because participants' degree of positive affect had been measured on a five-point scale, researchers could see that each one-point increase brought a 22 percent risk reduction. Remarkably, that held true even for folks who, along with their positive affect, had some degree of negative affect--feelings of sadness or depression. Positive affect is thought to be a stable, life-long trait that's not altered by temporary bouts of negative affect, the study says.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so many studies, this one, published in the European Heart Journal, showed only a link, not a cause-and-effect relationship. The authors note that clinical trials are underway to determine whether positive affect actually causes better heart health. Until that relationship is established, they write, the medical community can't really start prescribing happiness as a protective or preventive measure.

Nor is the mechanism by which positive affect might improve cardiovascular health well understood. Perhaps, the authors suggest, generally happy people deal with stress better than their less-happy peers, or get more sleep, or are less likely to smoke. Or happiness may have some physiological impact on heart rhythm. Any of those factors could influence heart health.

An editorial that accompanies the study notes that cardiovascular disease and major depression have long been associated, but nobody knows whether one causes the other or whether both are caused by some third factor common to both conditions. The new research may offer fresh ways to evaluate that relationship and perhaps devise therapeutic interventions.

Still, the authors note that there's no reason people can't try to build more joy into their lives, whether it helps their hearts or not. Here's a nifty quote from Davidson, taken from the press release announcing the study:

"Like the observational finding that moderate wine consumption is healthy (and enjoyable), at this point ordinary people can ensure they have some pleasurable activities in their daily lives," she said. "Some people wait for their two weeks of vacation to have fun, and that would be analogous to binge drinking (moderation and consistency, not deprivation and binging, is what is needed). If you enjoy reading novels, but never get around to it, commit to getting 15 minutes or so of reading in. If walking or listening to music improves your mood, get those activities in your schedule. Essentially, spending some few minutes each day truly relaxed and enjoying yourself is certainly good for your mental health, and may improve your physical health as well (although this is, as yet, not confirmed)."

Do you think your affect is more positive or negative? Keep your answer in mind as you take today's poll:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 17, 2010; 7:01 PM ET
Categories:  Cardiovascular Health , General Health , Psychology , Stress  | Tags: don't worry be happy, happiness and heart health, mood and heart health, positive affect good for your heart  
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Thanks for the discussion of the issue of correlation versus cause-and-effect, so often not in these kinds of stories. Note that there is always going to be someone somewhere who takes an idea like this and distorts it in a book, on a website, etc., as a panacea for very serious medical conditions.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | February 17, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Can a national mandate that citizens be injected with prozac at the same time they get their polio vaccination be far behind, or would that be seen as further stressing politicians who must figure out how to balance Social Security's books?

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 17, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

I underwent open heart surgery for congenital Aortic stenosis in 1981.My positive approach helped me to get over all the related problems.The seeds of happiness bloom if one is willing to sow them.The dividends are: ' a strong heart,even if diseased".

Posted by: masoodirafi | February 17, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

Yes, it is equally possible that people who are in ill health and prone to heart disease are unhappy BECAUSE of those problems, not the other way around. (Same thing with all the studies who say married people are happier than singles--well if you're grumpy all the time, who wants to marry you? The negativity may be the cause of singleness, not necessarily the other way around).

Posted by: sam38 | February 17, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

you can also get a free copy of diabetic cookbook and a free glucose meter from

Posted by: rachelryan21 | February 20, 2010 3:56 AM | Report abuse

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