Take it to heart: Positive emotions may be good for health

August 15, 2011

Negative thinking or depression can adversely affect your health, according to a number of studies.

But what about positive emotions? Can they actually make you healthier?

Laura Kubzansky thinks they can. Kubzansky, associate professor of society, human development, and health at HSPH, spoke about the topic Aug. 2, 2011, at a talk titled “Positive Feelings Are Good for Your Heart: Emotion and (Mal) Adaptive Processes Over the Life Course,” as part of the School’s Hot Topics summer lecture series.

Emotions as Stress Reducers

While research on the effect of positive emotions on health is limited—the majority of researchers have looked at negative emotions or stress—the studies that do exist suggest that positive emotions can indeed be beneficial for health, Kubzansky said. The theory, she said, is that they somehow buffer stress, although how this happens is unknown. Researchers speculate that positive emotions may evoke healthy behavioral responses in people, such as making them less likely to smoke or drink or more likely to exercise. Such emotions may also lead to beneficial physiological responses, such as improved sleep quality or higher levels of antioxidants or good (HDL) cholesterol.

Kubzansky outlined a number of studies, some of which focused on how negative emotions affect health, and others that focused on positive. Much of this research is about heart disease, Kubzansky noted; since heart disease onset is typically easier to pinpoint than other diseases (such as cancer), researchers are able to accurately assess its association with emotions during a particular time period.

Negativity Bad for Heart

In one major Canadian study from 2004, researchers examined nine of the top risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise. Researchers found that one risk category, “psychosocial factors”—which includes things such as distress about work or family—was associated with substantial risk of heart attack. In fact, people who reported high levels of psychosocial distress had almost as much risk as those who smoked.

A 2002 University of California, San Francisco meta-analysis of the relationship between depression and heart disease indicated that people with clinical depression had a 2.7% increased risk of getting heart disease. Those not clinically depressed—but still depressed—had one and a half times the risk compared with those without depression.

And a University of Pittsburgh study from 2004 suggested that less optimistic people had a swifter progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Look on the Bright Side

In studies focusing on positive psychological functioning, Kubzansky said that researchers generally look at either optimistic people—those who expect that things will mostly go their way—or those with “emotional vitality,” who exhibit a healthy interest in their lives and in the world.

A 2007 study by Kubzansky and colleagues suggested that individuals with emotional vitality had a 20% reduced risk of heart disease compared with those lacking emotional vitality. And a 2001 study from her group showed that highly optimistic people had about half the risk of getting cardiovascular disease as did those who were more pessimistic. Since 2001, she added, her group and other research groups have replicated these findings several times with different subjects.

Kubzansky is currently working on a study examining the relationship between optimism and levels of HDL and carotenoids.

It seems clear, Kubzansky said, that positive emotions are providing some sort of “restorative biology” for people. “But, until we understand the mechanisms, it would be hard to make the case strongly,” she said. “There may be other mechanisms at play, including behavior.”

Kubzansky said all of the studies convince her of the importance of being able to self-regulate emotion—to be able to meet challenges and bounce back from them. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘It’s a bad day, but it won’t last forever,’ ” she said. Helping children develop this sort of resilience is key, she added, to make sure that people get on the right path toward healthy lives early on.

–Karen Feldscher

Photo: Aubrey LaMedica

Learn more

“Happiness & Health” (Harvard Public Health Review)

More Hot Topics

HSPH Health Policy Expert Impressed with National Health Reform Implementation — Featuring John McDonough, professor of the practice of public health and director of the Center for Public Health Leadership

Location, Location, Location: Where You Live Can Affect Your Health — Featuring Francine Laden, Mark and Catherine Winkler associate professor of environmental epidemiology

Protecting Children From Adversity Key to Healthy Development — Featuring Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI professor of child health and development and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Technology Boosts Humanitarian Efforts — Featuring Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, associate professor in HSPH’s Department of Global Health and Population, and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School