Perhaps you’ve heard the old adage: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, but in truth the key to good health and vitality may be be simpler than we realized. As it turns out, happiness can be the best supplement for one’s wellbeing, especially when it comes to heart health. Research at Penn State University have been investigating the effects of positive thinking on one’s behavior and whether or not it can lead to the development of good habits which can lead to better health outcomes, particularly in patients with heart disease.
Is Positive Thinking the Key to Good Health?
Their findings, published in the journal Psychomatic Medicine, build on the popular, if not controversial field of “positive psychology”. This mode of thinking is based on research which claims that positive thinking can potentially increase longevity. There have been links observed between positive thinking and the improved outcomes in patients with breast cancer and human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Moreover, positive thinking has been shown to improve rates of recovery and survival following heart bypass surgery.
Conversely, negative emotions, such as those associated with depression, have been shown to have adverse and harmful effects on one’s health.
The Realities of Depression
According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: “Major depressive disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year.” The DBSA reveals that depression can make individuals 4 times more likely to develop a heart attack than those without a history of the illness. They also note that individuals who experienced one heart attack and suffer from depression are more likely to also experience a second or even die.
A notable symptom of depression is overwhelming and recurring negative thoughts or feelings which can correlate to feelings of low self esteem or a lack of motivation to engage in day-to-day activities. For many adults, a combination of medication and psychiatric treatment is effective in helping them combat depression or depressive symptoms. However, increased interest in the scientific community has fallen on the latter treatment option, especially when focusing on the individual patient’s own agency in their health and wellbeing, even psychologically.
Positive Thinking: Idealistic or Effective?
While the idea that happiness can heal is an idealistic and, on the surface, a possibly naive notion, the increased interest in the notion of the potency of positivity has motivated scientist to take a closer look at why we feel happy and what effects that happiness has on us physically and mentally. Seeking to investigate such claims, the researchers from the Center for Healthy Aging and the Department of Biobehavioral Health in Penn State, lead by Dr. Nancy Sin, conducted a study which followed more than 1,000 patients diagnosed with coronary heart disease to see how maintaining positive emotions might benefit their health.
The researchers assessed the psychological well-being of the participants at baseline and again after 5 years. Participants were asked to rate the extent that they had felt 10 specified positive emotions which included “interested”, “proud”, “inspired”, and “enthusiasm”. Additional measurements include cigarette usage, sleep quality, medication adherence, physical activity, and alcohol consumption, were taken at baseline and again 5 years later. Demographic factors like depressive symptoms and the severity of the individual’s heart condition were also taken into account.
Researchers found was that patients who reported higher positive psychological states were more likely to be physically active, sleep better, and take their heart medications. They were also less likely to smoke, when compared with other patients who demonstrated lower levels of positive states. Interestingly, however, the researchers found that there was no correlation between positive emotions and alcohol use.
Positive Thinking Can Lead to Better Health Habits
What they did find was that positive emotions are associated with number of long-term health habits, which are ultimately important for reducing the risk of future heart problems and even death. That being said, positive emotions at baseline did not predict changes in health behaviors of the patients 5 years later, increases in positive emotions were related to improvements in physical activity, sleep quality, and medication adherence.
The researchers believe that there are a number of reasons why positive emotions are linked to optimal health habits and, consequently, improvements in their overall health. Most obviously, perhaps, is that people with a more positive mindset may be more motivated and persistent when it comes to pursuing healthy behaviors. Furthermore, positive emotions help people better adjust their health goals and be more proactive in coping with stress and setbacks.
Use With Caution
It’s worth noting that some researchers have urged caution in promoting positive thinking, suggesting that negative thinking can sometimes be used as a part of positive psychology when it motivates people to perform better and grow personally. In addition, they worry that fear of recognizing or expressing negative feelings can also have undesirable consequences.
But the researchers at Penn State believe that if efforts to sustain or enhance positive emotions can promote better health behaviors, the application of positive thinking to this end can be useful for people with a number of long-term health behaviors. As such, Dr. Sin hopes that this research can pave the way for future work on interventions to improve patient health habits. She hopes to conduct future research with other chronic disease populations utilizing electronic tracking of health behaviors to determine the true extent of the effects of positive thinking on an individual’s health and vitality. Currently, results seem promising.