Health, however, is more than the mere absence of disease. In an article published this week in the Psychological Bulletin, my colleague Laura Kubzansky and I demonstrate that positive psychological well-being – which includes feeling optimistic, happy, satisfied, and purposeful – is beneficial for cardiovascular health.
In an investigation of more than 200 studies, we found that these psychological assets are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. This relationship was present regardless of a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body mass index.
Moreover, positive psychological well-being seems to be connected to better cardiovascular outcomes because people with greater well-being tend to engage in healthier behaviors like exercising and have healthier biological function like low cholesterol. These findings align with the American Heart Association’s recent emphasis on ideal cardiovascular health, which it defines as more than the absence of risk factors.
This perspective on health does not end with one study. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio is funding ongoing investigation into Positive Health, an emerging body of research into health assets that help people achieve and maintain good health. These assets may include subjective factors like an optimistic outlook, functional factors like a stable marriage, and biological factors like low blood pressure. All of these assets are desirable in their own right, but researchers are also exploring how they may enhance overall well-being and protect against physical illness.
Although more research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of how psychological well-being protects against cardiovascular disease over time, our findings have important implications for prevention and intervention strategies. In addition to repairing psychological deficits like depression, bolstering psychological strengths like optimism may help to foster cardiovascular health.
Julia K. Boehm, PhD, is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. Boehm is the co-author of “The Heart’s Content: The Association between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health.”