It’s said that a smile takes much less effort than a frown. And though few, if any, have ever proven this “factoid”, the maxim rings true. To find positivity in the face of adversity is surely better than laying our heads down, lost in the quicksand of melancholy. And according to the authors of a study published this month in Psychosomatic Medicine, a little burst of cheer just might safeguard us in the wake of a heart attack.

The researchers studied 369 patients who had been admitted to St. George’s Hospital in South London over two time periods (2001 to 2004 and 2007 to 2008) for an acute coronary syndrome, a catch-all diagnosis for those whose blood flow to the heart has been blocked. In the days after treatment, the team surveyed the patients’ physical health, level of optimism, and mental well being, and then followed up with them a year later.

Across the board, they discovered that higher levels of optimism predicted a better recovery from their heart woes as well as a lower incidence of depressive symptoms. Optimism was also correlated with a greater uptake of healthy behaviors. Eighty-five percent of the more optimistic quit smoking when compared to the 50 percent of those on the bottom rung. Similarly, the percentage of those who ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables was doubled among the happier of the bunch, though optimism didn’t seem to have an influence on the level of physical activity reported. These associations were found after controlling for demographical factors like age, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Fig 2. Psychosomatic Medicine: April 2015 - Volume 77 - Issue 3 - p 311–318
Panels showing percentages of people who took up healthy behaviors like smoking less and eating more fruits and vegetables, as separated by levels of optimism. Photo courtesy of Psychosomatic Medicine

As a caveat, the study didn’t find a strong correlation between optimism and major cardiovascular health problems. “Hence, low optimism in itself was not detrimental to cardiac health in this sample,” the authors wrote, “However; we did find that optimism seemed to buffer the impact of persistent depression on cardiac outcomes.” Noting that previous research has shown a connection between depressive symptoms and many chronic conditions, including cardiovascular issues, they concluded that optimism could stave off the effects of depression with the promotion of protective behaviors. The study also points out that the overall level of optimism found in the participants was actually lower than that of a healthy control population, signaling that there might be a greater ceiling to its effects.

As the authors discuss, the study is only the latest in an increasing body of research finding a link between our emotional and physical health, and they hope that their work can take treatment programs in new directions, both in identifying those at greater risk and helping them, “[It] is possible that less optimistic perspectives in cardiac patients are malleable, potentially leading to improved adaptation after major cardiac events,” they wrote.

Someday soon, it might be common knowledge that a cheerful heart makes for a healthy one.

Source: Ronaldson A, Molloy G, Wikman A. et al. Optimism and Recovery After Acute Coronary Syndrome: A Clinical Cohort Study. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2015