Are Positive Emotions Good for Your Heart?

According to a new study published in the American Journal of Cardiology – YES.

Perhaps not totally a surprise. In the last 10 years positivity researchers have found strong evidence that positive emotions reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

The new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University is the first to document the benefits of positive mental/emotional traits among people at high risk for cardiovascular disease – the leading cause of death worldwide. (See Greater Good Science Center post for description of the study and links.) A positive approach to life improves cardiovascular health among people in the highest risk categories.

We also know that all of us – high risk or not – can choose to cultivate and practice the positive mental and emotional traits that extend our lives – on average 7-9 years – as well as the other factors that lead to better mood, thus healthier bodies, brains and lives: healthy relationships, dropping grudges, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.

Researchers have found that the ratio of positive to negative emotions needs to be 3 to 1in order to be effective in protecting our health and rewiring our brains, moods and behaviors. Here’s an exercise that is simple and, if done consistently every day for 30 days (then try 90) will have a great impact on your health and well-being.

Gratitude Free-Write

  1. On a piece of paper, spend 3 minutes writing down, stream of consciousness, things you are grateful for – simple things like fresh peaches, the glimpse of a hummingbird, the sound of your lover’s voice. (Noticing and naming keeps the pre-frontal cortex on line, making it easier to rewire the brain and create new habits. Things – nouns – are usually the first thing we focus on where we’re practicing gratitude.) Nothing is too small or too silly. Just let your mind make its own unconscious associations.
  2. Repeat the free-write every day for 30 days. Practicing at the same time every day, or triggered by the same cue every day (meal times or just before going to bed are common times/cues) help your brain remember to do the practice; it becomes more effortless.
  3. Over time, you may notice that the “things” you jot down every day evolve – from possessions and people we are grateful for (and we are!) to processes that sustain our lives – breathing, walking, eating, sleeping – then to people unknown to us that sustain our lives – people staffing fire departments and emergency rooms and municipal water districts and airports. To entire events and occasions which can be very positive resources for our resilience. Eventually we can be grateful for the gratitude itself, that taps us into the grace (sharing the Latin root word for gratitude) that anything exists at all.
  4. Eventually, you may choose to expand your free-write to looking for new categories of content, and then the stream of consciousness within that category. (The unconscious may complete ignore those borders; that’s OK; we can be grateful that our brains can do that!) Examples: Memories specifically from growing up that bring us joy and pleasure in remembering them, a chain of events that caused something unexpected and delightful to happen. My own personal favorite – gratitude for bad things that didn’t happen.
  5. Eventually, you may wish to extend this practice to other positive emotions and traits – jotting down moments of kindness or compassion you experienced throughout the day/week/month. Moments of awe, moments of delight. The practice of focusing on the positive can shift our entire outlook on life, and that more optimistic attitude will have profound positive effects on our health – body, brain, mind, spirit.

Resources:

Greater Good Science Center: An astonishingly abundant resource for good news in well-done science in all realms of human endeavor.

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive by Barbara Frederickson. (Crown Publishers, 2009)

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky. (Penguin Press, 2007)

July 2012 e-newsletter: Positive Emotions Build Resilience

August 2012 e-newsletter: The How of Happiness