The connection between the actions we take and our cardiovascular health—what we eat and how often we exercise—is well known, but what about the impact of our thoughts?
A wide range of medical studies has concluded that an optimistic outlook—in particular the feeling that life is worth living—has a protective effect on heart health. For example, researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who exhibit optimism or “emotional vitality,” defined as maintaining a healthy interest in their lives and the world around them, have a 20-percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in comparison to people with a pessimistic outlook.
Several factors may account for how emotional outlook influences physical health. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, suggests that optimists, believing they can make a difference, take action to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In addition, people with a positive outlook typically have stronger relationships with family and friends they can rely on for social support in adopting healthy habits. A third possibility is that emotional health may be linked to biological mechanisms that shield optimists from serious illness or aid in their recovery.
The interconnection of emotional and physical health is further bolstered by the effects of regular physical activity in alleviating depression, reducing stress, and diminishing feelings of anxiety. You don’t have to work out for months or years to enjoy this mood-enhancing effect: The positive impact of exercise on emotional outlook is typically felt during or within minutes after completing a workout.
Again, scientists continue to explore how physical activity elevates feelings of emotional well-being. The effect may result from increased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter manufactured in the brain that influences both mood and the functioning of the cardiovascular system, among other things. Physical exertion also increases the production of other brain chemicals associated with enhancing positive feelings, including endorphins and norepinephrine. In addition, the physical-emotional link may be related to the sense of accomplishment we feel on completing a good workout. Whatever ties physical activity to a more positive outlook, incorporating regular exercise into the daily routine supplies a ready and reliable mood boost and relief from daily stresses.
Try it for yourself: If you’re having a hard day or dealing with a frustrating challenge, take an exercise break and you will likely return to the task at hand feeling energized, focused, and in a much more positive mindset.
In the same way that we maintain our physical health, we can develop and perpetuate a more positive outlook. Contrary to longstanding assumptions that people have an inherent tendency toward optimism or pessimism, recent research has demonstrated that we have significant control over the emotional frame through which we view ourselves and the world around us.
Life is full of ups and downs, and how we respond emotionally to these shifts is determined by the complex interplay of influences including heredity, life circumstances, brain chemistry, and our thoughts and behaviors. By consciously changing our thoughts and behaviors, which can in turn influence the production of neurochemicals, it is possible to more consistently achieve positive emotional states. With the exception of inherited emotional propensity, we can control most of the influences on how we view and respond to the people and events in our lives and over time foster more a positive outlook that will support a happier—and healthier—heart.
For more on this and other cutting edge research read Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being, currently available on Amazon.