Optimism Gives Your Heart Health a Boost

Optimism Gives Your Heart Health a Boost

Story at-a-glance -

  • The tendency to always expect the worst has been linked to a 25 percent higher risk of dying before the age of 65
  • People who display a more optimistic can-do attitude in life experience significantly better cardiovascular health over the long term
  • You can also “die from a broken heart.” Losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by six times

By Dr. Mercola

Mounting research reveals that you cannot separate your health from your emotions, and numerous studies support the idea that having an upbeat and positive perspective can translate into living a longer healthier life.

For example, in one older study,1 pessimism was linked to a 19 percent higher risk of dying over a 30-year period.

More recently, studies have confirmed the link between optimism and heart health specifically. One 2011 study2 found that those who reported higher levels of satisfaction in areas like career, sex life, and family had a reduced risk for heart disease. 

The following year, Harvard researchers reviewed more than 200 studies on this topic, again concluding that people who are more optimistic and satisfied with life have a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.3 These results are discussed in the video above.

Optimism Promotes Heart Health

After examining the associations between optimism and heart health in more than 5,100 adults of various ethnic groups for 11 years, researchers at the University of Illinois4,5 report that people who display a more optimistic can-do attitude in life experience significantly better cardiovascular health over the long term.

People who were the most optimistic were up to 76 percent more likely to have a total health score in the ideal range. The health scores were based on seven metrics used by the American Heart Association (AHA) to define heart health.

This includes blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose, serum cholesterol levels, diet, exercise, and smoking. According to study author Rosalba Hernandez:

“Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts. This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health...

At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates.

This evidence, which is hypothesized to occur through a biobehavioral mechanism, suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being – e.g., optimism – may be a potential avenue for AHA to reach its goal of improving Americans’ cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020.”

Can You Die from a Broken Heart?

If optimism and happiness can boost your heart health, what about the more extreme of negative emotions: grief? You sometimes hear stories of elderly partners dying within weeks, days, or even hours of each other; or people who suffer deadly cardiac events following some other severe emotional blow.

But can you really die from a “broken heart?” Researchers say yes. Losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by six times.6

The abrupt increase in risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack following a heartbreak is thought to be related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to.

For instance, adrenaline increases your blood pressure and your heart rate, and it's been suggested that it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.

The risk of a heart attack begins to decline after about a month, likely because the levels of stress hormones start to level back out. The loss of a loved one also increases your risk of stress cardiomyopathy,7 which is sometimes referred to as “broken heart syndrome.”8

The symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy are very similar to those of a typical heart attack, including chest pain, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, and even congestive heart failure. There are some key differences, however.

In broken heart syndrome, the symptoms occur shortly after an extremely stressful event, such as a death in the family, serious financial loss, extreme anger, a serious medical diagnosis, or a car accident or other trauma.

My Personal Challenges with a Broken Heart

Fortunately I have only had to go through acute grieving once, about 20 years ago when the relationship with the woman I love ended. The grief and sadness progressed into a full blown depression; I lost 30 pounds and got down to 150 pounds, which is really thin for someone nearly 6’2”.

This was the most painful and stressful period of my life and it took me many months to recover. One of the strategies I used was to seek to make some good of that terrible situation. I committed the extra time and energy to creating this newsletter and that seemed to help not only me but many others.

Even though I was healthy, it was obvious to me how these changes could seriously harm or even kill you. Fortunately it all worked out relationally as well as I have been in a committed relationship with my girlfriend for the last five and half years.

Now, we know that stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones can “stun” or “shock” the heart, leading to sudden weakness of the heart muscle. This condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, but it’s usually a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.

In most cases a typical heart attack occurs due to blockages in the coronary arteries that stop blood flow and cause heart cells to die, leading to irreversible damage. But people with broken heart syndrome often have normal arteries without significant blockages. The symptoms occur due to the emotional stress, so when the stress begins to die down, the heart is able to recover.

The Science of Happiness

While conventional medicine is still reluctant to admit that your emotional state has a major impact on your overall health and longevity, a 2013 article in Scientific American9 discusses a number of interesting advancements in the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI).

Researchers are finding that your brain and immune system are wired together, and portions of your nervous system directly connect with immune-related organs. Your immune cells also have receptors for neurotransmitters, which suggest they can be more or less directly influenced by them.

Researchers have also investigated the genetic effects of various mental states. For example, in one study,10 chronic loneliness was associated with the up- and down-regulation of specific genes. Genes involved in the regulation of inflammatory response were upregulated, while genes involved with antiviral control were downregulated. The end result was decreased immune function. In socially active people, the reverse was true. This was one of the first studies to link a psychological risk factor with actual changes in gene expression.

Two Types of Happiness Produce Different Genetic Responses

In another happiness study,11 participants answered questions about the frequency of certain emotional states, covering two categories or types of happiness known to psychologists as:

  1. Hedonic well-being – characterized by happiness gleaned from pleasurable experiences
  2. Eudaimonic well-being – happiness that arises from activities that bring you a greater sense of purpose, life meaning, or self-actualization  

Interestingly, while both are positive emotional states associated with happiness, the gene expressions they produced were not identical. Those whose sense of happiness was rooted in the eudaimonic camp were found to have favorable gene-expression profiles, while hedonic well-being produced gene profiles similar to those seen in people experiencing stress due to adversity.

According to the author, Steve Cole of the Cousins Center,12 the happiness you glean from hollow consumption activities or pleasurable experiences is very dependent on your circumstances, which can change quickly and drastically. So when you run into adversity, you may become quite stressed—for example, if you can’t afford a certain activity anymore, you feel increasingly “unhappy.” Eudaimonia on the other hand, in which happiness is centered around the feeling of life having a greater purpose, helps buffer against perceived threats and stress, and therefore tends to have a beneficial impact on your health.

All of us will encounter challenges in our life. That is part of life. One of the guiding principles that I use to help address them is seeking to be an inverse paranoid. This approach was popularized by W. Clement Stone. Admittedly, it isn’t always easy, but the benefits are profound.

Unlike a conventional paranoid who believes the world is out to get him, an inverse paranoid believes the opposite: that every awful tragedy that befalls you ultimately is for some purpose that will benefit you far more than you can possibly imagine, even if you are unable to see it at the time. I gave a personal illustration on my grief experience above which actually was partially responsible for the creation of this newsletter. But I have used it many dozens of times since then.

Secrets of Happy People

Being able to manifest positive emotions and happiness is perhaps one of the greatest gifts you have been given as a human being. But to some extent, being happy is a choice you need to make, much like choosing to exercise or eat right. Happiness comes from within—it’s not meted out by circumstance alone. This is why, if you truly want to be happy, you need to work on yourself first. And the health benefits mentioned above, like a significantly reduced risk of heart attack and other cardiac events, should provide ample motivation for doing so.

Interestingly, self-acceptance appears to be one of the most important factors that can produce a more consistent sense of happiness. In a survey13 of 5,000 people by the charity Action for Happiness, people were asked to rate themselves between 1 and 10 on 10 habits that are scientifically linked to happiness. While all 10 habits were strongly linked to overall life satisfaction, acceptance was the strongest predictor. In all, the survey resulted in the following 10 Keys to Happier Living, which together spell out the acronym GREAT DREAM:

  • Giving: do things for others
  • Relating: connect with people
  • Exercising: take care of your body
  • Appreciating: notice the world around you
  • Trying out: keep learning new things
  • Direction: have goals to look forward to
  • Resilience: find ways to bounce back
  • Emotion: take a positive approach
  • Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are
  • Meaning: be part of something bigger

Another way to think about happiness is to define it as “whatever gets you excited.” Once you’ve identified that activity, whatever it is, you can start focusing your mind around that so you can integrate more of it into your day to day life. If you need more help to get you started, check out my previous article, 13 Tips for Living Happy, Wild, and Free.