Be Happy for Your Heart

Health, Home & Family
on February 24, 2008

Happiness is not only good for the soul. An increasing body of scientific evidence suggests that happy feelings and an upbeat attitude are associated with better heart health and a longer life, too.

Anita Fox was 50 when she had a heart attack, followed shortly by bypass surgery. Today, the marketing data analyst from Madison, Wis., says, I am happier now than I have been in years. Part of the reason, of course, is simple joy at being alive. But in the four years since the heart attack, Fox also has made a conscious effort to raise her happiness quotient.

Ive changed some things, like being a workaholic, she says. I now take vacations without a laptop and a cell phone to keep me working, and I take days off just because. I got a dog and a cat for company, and I moved from a high-rise apartment building to a house with a yard. I also walk every dayOK, just six days a weektake yoga and Pilates, and meditate. What Fox suspectsand science is now provingis that such steps do her heart good in more ways than one.

Mood and attitude
Doctors have long observed a relationship between mood and attitude, on one hand, and heart health, on the other. I see it every day in the hospital, says Dr. Mindy Gentry, a cardiologist and director of cardiac rehabilitation at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. Its clear that patients who have a positive outlook on their prognosis recover more quickly and more completely than those who do not.

If your heart is healthy, a positive outlook may help keep it that way. For example, in a study by Dutch researchers of 941 people age 65 and older, greater optimism was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes. Prevention of death from a heart attack or stroke accounted for much of the protective effect.

In contrast, a negative frame of mind may tilt the scale in the opposite direction. Another study looked at 2,334 middle-aged adults with prehypertensionblood pressure that is above normal, but not in the high blood pressure range yet. Among both men and women, high levels of long-term stress were associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease within the following four to eight years. In the men, high anger levels also increased the risk of progressing to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Stress increases various hormones, like cortisol and epinephrine, in our bodies, says Dr. Marty Player, lead researcher in the prehypertension study and assistant professor of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. This can lead to a higher heart rate and higher blood pressure, which over time increases the risk for developing heart disease.

Reasons to smile
These tips can help boost your happiness while keeping you young at heart.

  • Tweak your thinking. Unhappy, pessimistic people look at problems as permanent, and they throw in the towel right away, says Maryann Troiani, a clinical psychologist from Barrington, Ill. (pop. 10,168), and coauthor of the book Spontaneous Optimism. On the other hand, people who are happy and optimistic look at problems as challenges, and they focus on finding solutions.
  • Count your blessings. Research has shown that people who express gratitude on a regular basis are more optimistic and healthier, on average, than those who dont. Cultivating greater gratefulness can be as simple as keeping a daily journal in which you write about things, large and small, that youre thankful for.
  • Be a do-gooder. Volunteering is another proven way to promote better mental and physical well-being. When youre unhappy or depressed, keeping your mind off yourself is important, too, Troiani says. Plus, volunteering is a good way to get out and make friendsa great antidote to loneliness and isolation.
  • Get moving. Exercise is an excellent way to relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and enhance psychological well-being. Aerobic exercisethe kind that makes you breathe hard and increases your heart rate for a sustained period of timereduces the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Plus, its fun, if you pick an activity you enjoy. Now thats something to smile about!