Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Written by Rita Gore YMCA volunteer

In the last decade there have been many different studies to report how “negative states” such as depression, anger and anxiety and hostility can be detrimental to cardiovascular health. But apparently that’s only looking at only half the picture.

What’s a surprise is how much less is known about the way “positive psychological well being” impacts heart health.

Thankfully, researchers are starting to ask some really interesting questions about this link. Laura Kubzansky, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that there is a benefit to what she calls” positive mental health”.

“In the first and largest systematic review on this topic to date, the HSPH researchers found that positive psychological well-being appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular events”.

Kubzansky’s 2007 study followed more than 6000 men and women 25-74 for 20 years.

Having emotional vitality, which she defines as “a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance”, seems to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. This was even after wholesome behaviors like regular exercise and not smoking were taken into consideration.

Four Key Personal Attributes:

Emotional vitality-a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness and engagement in life.

Optimism- a belief that good things will happen and that one’s actions account for the good things that happen in life.

Supportive Network-of family and friends

Ability to self-regulate –having the resiliency to bounce back from stressful challenges, knowing that things will look up again eventually. Choosing physical activity and eating well while avoiding behaviours like regular overeating, drinking alcohol to excess or unsafe sex.

Kubzansky is quick to acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a part in the psychological states of anxiety and depression or health and happiness.

“They are 40-50% heritable, which means you may be born with the genetic disposition. But this also suggests that there is a lot of room to maneuver” points out the researcher.

Whether in born or shaped by life circumstances though, research suggests that these personal attributes will help some people “avoid or healthfully manage diseases, such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and depression.”

But is it too late for us adults? Apparently not. For some, meditation or therapy work for dealing with stress and the curve balls that get thrown our way; for others faith based activities, simply spending time with friends or sports are helpful.

Kubzansky notes that” My guess is that many of the people who are chronically distressed never figure out how to come back from a bad experience, or focus on something different, or change their perspective.”

Understanding how psychological well-being and cardio-vascular disease could be related was of interest to Kubzansky and her team. Here’s what they found:

“Individuals with a sense of well-being engaged in healthier behaviours such as exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting sufficient sleep.” Furthermore, greater well-being was also related to better biological function i.e. lower blood pressure, healthier blood fat levels and normal body weight.

For policy makers these study results have implications too. Eric Rimm, HSPH associate professor states bluntly:

“Seventy to 80 percent of heart attacks in this country occur not because of genetics or through some mysterious causative factors. It’s through lifestyle choices people make: diet, smoking, exercise. Why are people doing these things? Does mood come into play?”


Kubzansky is working on a map from information she has collected from participants in her study. It is based on their sense of meaning and purpose, life satisfaction and positive mood. She will track how these factors and health come together based on race, ethnicity, education income and gender. She’s hoping to understand in a close up way what it is about certain environments that contribute to a better frame of mind and better physical health.

The last thing Kubzansky wants though is for her research to be used to blame the victim.

She’s very opposed that the study results be used to blame people for not simply being happier-and therefore healthier” If the public reduced the author’s research to “Don’t worry be happy” it would not be a useful outcome points out Kubzansky, since not everyone lives in an environment where you can “turn off worry”.

Looking for Balance:

Kubzansky’s work has caused her to think more about how to achieve balance in her own life too. For her it is yoga class and playing piano.

“When I’m playing piano,” she explains,” I’m in the moment. I’m not worrying or thinking or trying to work out a problem.”

Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment, she says because it lets us put down our burdens and so is restorative.

Here we are, deep in the middle of a Canadian winter. How would you rate your “emotional vitality” these days? And when you get knocked off the railroad track of life, what helps you get YOU back on track? It might make for an interesting discussion with a friend over coffee or during a walk along the river.


Happiness and Health (Winter 2011) Sara Rimer