Having a healthy heart could be as simple as taking the time to relax and enjoy yourself, according to researchers at Columbia University, New York.
While previous studies have looked at the negative emotions of stress, anxiety and anger, and the way they increase the risk of heart disease, this new research published in the European Heart Journal focuses on the positive emotions of joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment, and the ways in which they can help to maintain a healthy heart.
What does the study show?
The study took place over ten years, between 1995 and 2005, and tracked the health of over 1700 adults in Nova Scotia, Canada. Subjects were assessed for their degree of ‘positive affect,’ where points were awarded according to their reactions to stressful situations and the way they expressed emotions. ‘Positive affect’ included a variety of pleasurable emotions such as joyfulness, happiness, enthusiasm, and excitement.
Researchers also took into account each subject’s physical risk of cardiovascular disease, age and sex, and any symptoms of depression, anxiety and hostility. The overall results showed that subjects with a higher ‘positive affect’ were generally at a reduced risk of heart disease.
The degree of ‘positive affect’ was categorized as no positive affect, little positive affect, moderate positive affect and high positive affect. It was discovered that over a ten year period, subjects with no positive affect were 22% more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those with little positive affect. In turn, subjects with little positive affect were 22% more likely to suffer cardiovascular disease than those with moderate positive affect.
The study also showed that subjects who had a generally happy and positive outlook, but who had experienced some short lived depressive symptoms at the start of the study, were not at any higher risk of developing heart disease because of these.
Why might happiness promote a healthy heart?
Dr. Davidson of Columbia University puts forward a number of reasons that subjects with a greater positive affect would be at reduced risk of a heart attack or stroke. These included:
- Typically happier people have longer periods of rest and relaxation
- Typically happier people recover more quickly from stressful situations
- Typically happier people spend less time dwelling on negative past events
Experts in cardiovascular health have been quick to point out that while this study shows a clear indication that there is a link between our emotional health and our risk of heart disease, further clinical trials are needed to determine whether we can change our natural levels of positivity and whether this could make a real difference to our cardiovascular health.
These experts stress that established risk factors should not be ignored, and that to reduce their chances of a heart attack or stroke, people should still take regular exercise, control their weight, eat a healthy diet, and try to give up smoking.
Tips for increasing your ‘positive affect’
While it is easy to suggest that being happier and putting on a smile will reduce your risk of heart disease, some people are naturally more positive than others. Contentment, enthusiasm, and joyfulness can be natural character traits that are hard to learn. Dr. Davidson suggests that taking small steps to increase your positive affect each and every day is more effective than waiting for a particular event or holiday:
“Everyone should try and inject some fun into their daily routines to counteract any effects of stress on their health, rather than waiting for holidays. Some people wait for their two weeks of vacation to have fun, and that would be analogous to binge drinking.”
Here are five tips for increasing your ‘positive affect:’
- Schedule time to do things you enjoy even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day or a couple of hours a week
- Get a good night’s sleep; you’ll be twice as productive in the morning
- If something needs to be done, get on and do it rather than worrying about doing it
- When you feel angry at someone, do something nice for them and your anger will disappear
- Find good treats such as a fun excursion or a healthy snack, rather than guilt ridden treats such as chocolate, alcohol or cigarettes