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Come On, Get Happy. It May Help Your Heart

Happy people may have even more to smile about. It turns out that being positive and enthusiastic could lower your risk of heart disease.

Stacked candy hearts with a happy face on top. i

Something to smile about: people with sunnier dispositions were found to have a lower risk of heart disease. ellie/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption ellie/Flickr
Stacked candy hearts with a happy face on top.

Something to smile about: people with sunnier dispositions were found to have a lower risk of heart disease.

ellie/Flickr

A study, published yesterday in the European Heart Journal, looked at more than 1,700 people in Nova Scotia, Canada, and rated how upbeat they were.

According to Dr. Karina W. Davidson, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University and lead researcher, an initial assessment was used to predict participants' chances of getting a heart attack over the next decade. And it worked pretty well.

Ten years down the road, researchers found 145 of the people had had heart attacks. And it turned out that the more positive their outlook was at the beginning of the study, when the average age of the subjects was about 46 years old, the less likely they were to have had a heart attack.

Though other studies have looked at negative emotional effects on heart health, such as stress and anxiety, this is the first to look at the happy side of the coin.

Davidson told Shots that happiness—or positivity—scores were determined through careful clinical evaluations. Researchers videotaped interviews and later coded them for the degree of outwardly displayed positive attitude on a five-point scale. Later the subjects' health outcomes were compared with their initial evaluations. The scientists found that for every point increase in positivity on the scale, risk for cardiac incidents decreased by more than 20 percent.

The notion that happiness brings health benefits has been kicking around for a while. A 2005 study found that people who are more positive tend to resist cold and flu when exposed, and another study found that happiness decreases blood pressure—which might directly relate to the decreased risk of heart disease.

But let's face it, few people are happy all the time. So, barring the breakthrough invention of rose-colored glasses, what can we do?

First a caveat, Davidson stressed that this study didn't test whether changes in positive attitudes also changed a person's heart risk. Her group only found that already positive people have a lessened risk of heart disease. Still, she was encouraged by the idea that we can improve our outlooks and get results.

"We already know that engaging in pleasurable or enjoyable activities most days of the week improves mental health. [So], we can already recommend that people ensure they have something they look forward to most days of the week," whether it's a drink with friends after work, or going to the gym, she said. Davidson added that a lot more work is needed to determine whether boosting your happiness will really boost your heart health.

But smiling a little more frequently certainly can't hurt. And we hear that a smile is contagious.

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