Happiness is Hot

Apr 30, 2012, 9:15 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Paul Tarini Paul Tarini

Happiness is gaining currency today, particularly in relationship to health and medicine. That’s what we’ve been hearing ever since Harvard School of Public Health researchers Julia K. Boehm and Laura Kubzansky published their report “The Heart’s Content: The Association Between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health” in the Psychological Bulletin, under a grant from Pioneer. This is the first study of its kind to look closely at how positive psychological well-being—including happiness and optimism—plays a role in heart health.

The story was indeed hot – gaining attention from USA Today, The Huffington Post, TIME’s Healthland blog, WebMD, The New York Times’ Well Blog, ABCNews.com, MensHealth.com, ModernHealthcare.com, Oprah.com, and hundreds more – and being shared throughout social networks and on the web.

This review, which bases its conclusions on more than 200 studies, taps into a larger conversation going on in health care today about the role of wellness and prevention. So often in health and medicine, we look at what is wrong and try to fix it. But more recently, attention has turned toward what we can do to get and stay healthy before things start to go wrong.

Prior research has primarily focused on how risk factors, such as anxiety and depression, are associated with heart disease and cardiovascular events. This investigation is the first to establish that health assets—such as optimism and happiness—are also associated with heart health. This most recent study fits into a new concept called Positive Health, which seeks to demonstrate that people can use and strengthen these assets to achieve a healthier life. 

The intersection of happiness and health – where we flourish both mentally and physically – is where we all want to find ourselves. The findings of this study make intuitive sense: They tell us that happy people are healthy, active, and health-conscious. They also point us toward a new health care paradigm that focuses on making the most of our inherent advantages—not just on avoiding what’s “bad for us.” The next step in this field is to establish whether or not we can design interventions that help build these health assets to help people increase their chances of living a healthier, longer, and perhaps happier life.

Read more of Paul Tarini’s thoughts on the growing evidence for Positive Health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.