September 11, 2013
News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Positive People Move More, Live Longer
Heart patients with a positive outlook may be less likely to die early. And that might be because they're also more likely to exercise, a new study finds. The study included 607 people with coronary artery disease. They were given a standard survey called the Global Mood Scale. It measured the ability to feel and show positive attitudes such as enthusiasm, joy and pleasure. They also were asked about their exercise habits. People with positive attitudes were twice as likely to exercise regularly as those with negative attitudes. Researchers kept track of people for 5 years. During this time, people with positive attitudes were 42% less likely than to die from any cause. The journal Circulation published the study September 11. MedPage Today wrote about it.
By Reena L. Pande, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Happy people feel better. Happy people are also healthier. And happy people tend to live longer. In fact, optimism has even been shown to help protect people from developing heart disease. A new research study confirms that people with heart disease and a positive attitude had a lower risk of dying. They were also much more likely to perform healthy behaviors such as exercise.
This new research studied 607 people with known heart disease. They were asked to complete a survey about their mood and overall positivity. The score measured something called "positive affect." This means someone's ability to feel pleasure, joy, happiness, enthusiasm and contentment. People with the highest scores were:
- Much less likely than others to die during a five-year follow-up period
- Much more likely to exercise
These two things were closely related. Part of the reason that positive thinking tended to help people live longer is that they were more likely to exercise.
Much research has been done during the last decade to understand the role of positive psychology and overall well-being on health and disease. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, pioneered much of this research. His work has really helped us understand the health benefits of positive psychology.
As an example, Seligman and others have found that being grateful is good for many aspects of life, including:
- Better relationships
- Better sleep
- Less aggressive behavior
- Less anxiety and depression
- And even lower heart disease
What Changes Can I Make Now?
So if being happy and having a positive attitude have such great benefits, how do we go about creating them?
First of all, if you feel down or depressed, it's important to get real help. Reach out to your doctor and learn what resources are available to you. Treatment for depression really can help. That treatment might include behavioral therapy with a licensed social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. It might even include medicines that can lessen symptoms of depression.
Others who might not be depressed could still benefit from a more positive outlook. It may seem odd to think about ways to improve your positive attitude, but it be can be done. Here are some suggestions:
- Be grateful. There's actually a fair amount of medical research about the benefits of gratitude on well-being and overall health. One study years ago asked people to keep a "gratitude journal." This was a log of things each day that made them feel grateful. Those who did this felt better and were healthier overall.
- Be optimistic. In a research study done long ago, overall optimism turned out to be a very good predictor of a lower risk of heart disease.
- Appreciate what you have. Too often in life we spend our time comparing our own lives to the lives of others. It's all too easy to do this today, when we are constantly connected through Facebook and Twitter.
- Smile. There's an interesting body of research on the benefits of laughter. In some parts of the world, "laughter clubs" have been created to promote increased smiling and laughing as a means of feeling better. No harm in trying!
- Move it. Exercise makes people feel better. Not only does it promote physical and health benefits, but exercise also lowers stress, depression and anxiety. And frankly, exercise lets people just feel better about themselves. Today's research confirmed that some of the good of having a positive attitude really comes from engaging in regular exercise. Makes sense. People who feel good about themselves may be more likely to take better care of themselves. Those positive health behaviors naturally lead to better overall health and well-being. And that translates into a lower risk of dying. So move it! I guarantee you will feel better.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
As a cardiologist, I have long felt that the health care system does not do a good job of helping people get healthy and stay healthy. Our system has long been focused on managing disease. It does not focus enough on wellness and overall well-being.
The research here again confirms the health benefits of having a positive attitude in life. The next step is to find ways to incorporate a focus on optimism, positivity and overall well-being into our traditional system of managing disease. It's increasingly clear that making sure people feel good overall, as well as feel healthy, can lead to major benefits for our health.