Optimism has a surprising benefit: Better heart health, study finds

Heartening new research finds link between positive thinking and health.

September 27, 2019, 3:11 PM

Looking on the bright side is more than a tool for taking life’s ups and downs in stride. An optimistic outlook is also good for your health, according to new research.

“Thought patterns and mindsets are the most intimate parts of our experience,” said Dr. Alan Rozanski, lead author of a meta-analysis on optimism that was published Friday in the journal JAMA Network Open. "We have known for a few decades now that there's a relationship between psychological factors and heart disease.”

The new meta-analysis, which examined 15 studies on optimism and health and utilized data from 229,391 individuals, found that a person’s tendency to think positively about the future was linked with a 35% lower risk for heart disease, and a lower risk of death.

But rote directives to “be more optimistic” seem unlikely to shift the worldviews of hardened pessimists.

Instead, Rozanski, who is also a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke's in New York, thinks a better application of the new optimism research might be to offer pessimism treatment as part of cardiac rehab programs.

PHOTO: In this undated file photo, a hospital visitor holds a patient's hand in a hospital ward.
In this undated file photo, a hospital visitor holds a patient's hand in a hospital ward.
Getty Images, FILE

People who have recently had heart attacks are eager to live healthier lives and are already making lifestyle changes, like improving their diets and exercising more, explained Rozanski, who has experience working with heart attack patients in such programs.

And while pessimism treatment is a novel idea, Rozanski thinks mental health should be part of post-heart attack regimens in the future.

“Thinking of this as a medical issue is new,” he said.

More broadly, he thinks pessimism should raise concerns for doctors who might already be screening for more serious mental health conditions, like depression.

While depression itself carries numerous health burdens and complications, including weight gain, heart disease, substance use disorders and risk for suicide, according to the Mayo Clinic, Rozanski stressed that we have clear approaches for treating depression.

“Just like we can treat depression, we can treat [pessimism] at an earlier stage,” he said.