Why Optimistic People May Have Healthier Hearts

Individuals who tend to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty arenít just happier, they have healthier hearts, too.

Researchers reviewed information from 5,100 adults between the ages of 45 and 84, examining subjectsí markers of cardiovascular health, like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, tobacco use, and dietary intake, as well as their mental health and levels of optimism. The team was led by Rosalba Hernandez, PhD, MSc, a University of Illinois social work professor in Champaign. Data for the research was derived from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, an ongoing National Heart Lung and Blood Institute-sponsored study of heart disease that focuses on 6,000 people in the United States.

The Findings

"We found that people who had the highest level of optimism were twice as likely to be in ideal cardiovascular health as those in the group of people who were the least optimistic," Hernandez says. "It gives us the initial evidence that there could be a link between heart disease and optimism."

For their research, study authors used the American Heart Associationís heart health criteria to allocate 0, 1, or 2 points (representing poor, intermediate, and ideal) to the study participants on metrics like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, tobacco use, and dietary intake, Hernandez explains. The participants then received a total health score that ranged from 0 to 14 (with the higher total scores being indicative of better health.) These heart health scores were then compared with subjectsí mental health and levels of optimism. This study is thought to be the first to examine the relationship between heart health and optimism.

"This study shows that people who are most optimistic are 50 to 75 percent more likely to have total health scores in the intermediate or ideal ranges," says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Being optimistic is associated with having healthier behaviors, like exercising more, eating better, and being less likely to smoke."

Advice for Non-Optimists

So what if youíre not the kind of person who looks on the bright side? You can learn to be optimistic, says Drew Ramsey, MD. Ramsey is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and co-author of The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body. "Being optimistic is a skill that people can acquire," Ramsey says. "Itís like cooking. Some people are simply wizards in the kitchen, but nearly everyone who has spent a lot of time in the kitchen and had some experiments fail knows how to cook." Keep in mind, he says, that optimism "isnít just about being happy all the time. Many events in our life arenít happy. But optimism is about building a lens through which, when we are assaulted with the complexities and difficulties of life, weíre able to remain in a state of gratitude, positive thinking, and optimism."

To train yourself to be more optimistic, Ramsey suggests the following:

  1. Put your life in perspective and work to develop a sense of gratitude. "Americans are blessed with a tremendously high quality of life, and a tremendous amount of freedom and opportunity," he says. "Itís striking that so many people donít appreciate this."
  2. Reduce your dependence on technology. "The one thing that has really interrupted most peopleís ability to foster optimism is dependence on technology and media," Ramsey says. Instead, he advises, foster connections with other people.
  3. Shift your perception of what stress really is. "If every small stressor in your life becomes a trigger for the physiological stress response, thatís very taxing on the body and the mind," Ramsey says. "Learn to understand that we canít change some things, and be okay with that."
  4. Nourish yourself with healthy food and relationships. "When people prioritize their professional work over their personal life, which means connecting and loving and being present for a partner or a friend or the community, this is not fostering optimism," Ramsey says.
  5. Finally, breathe deep. "A lot of people are unaware that theyíre not breathing when they are stressed," Ramsey says. "Be more aware of how you are breathing, which can help you to be more present and more positive."

Once you start being more optimistic, keep it up. "Fostering optimism helps you make healthier choices, and this ultimately can lead to better cardiovascular health," Steinbaum says.

Drew Ramsey, MD, reviewed this article.

Sources

Rosalba Hernandez, PhD, MSc. Phone interview, January 22, 2015.

Drew Ramsey, MD. Phone interview, January 26, 2015.

Suzanne Steinbaum, DO. Email interview, February 1, 2015.

"MESA Website." MESA Coordinating Center, University of Washington, Seattle. Page accessed February 23, 2015.

Forrest, Sharita. "Optimistic People Have Healthier Hearts, Study Finds." University of Illinois News Bureau. January 8, 2015.