New Evidence Continues to Build the Field of Positive Health

Apr 17, 2012, 4:10 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Paul Tarini Paul Tarini

Today, the Psychological Bulletin published research by Julia K. Boehm and Laura Kubzansky from the Harvard School of Public Health suggesting that positive psychological well-being – such as life purpose, positive emotion, life satisfaction, happiness and optimism – can help protect against and slow the progression of heart disease.

Prior research in this area has focused on how risk factors like anxiety and depression are associated with cardiovascular disease. But this study is the first of its kind to consider how a health asset –psychological well-being – plays a role in heart health.

This investigation and other emerging research suggests that in addition to diagnosis, treatment and prevention, health care should focus on promoting positive health assets – strengths that can contribute to healthier, longer lives. Health assets could include biological factors, such as high heart rate variability; subjective factors, such as optimism; and functional factors, such as a stable marriage. Not only are these assets desirable in their own right, they could also potentially protect against disease and foster stronger, more robust health. Positive Health is a new field of study that turns our attention to understanding these health assets.

When the Pioneer Portfolio first learned about the concept of Positive Health, we were intrigued by its potential to reframe the goals of our health care system. While our current system is focused on the treatment and prevention of illness, we imagined a system that was able to help build assets that make people healthier. We are excited to see that evidence is continuing to emerge finding merit for the concept and identifying areas for additional research, particularly in the context of cardiovascular health.  

Additional research published earlier this month in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that having a sense of purpose in life may help protect older adults with coronary heart disease from heart attacks. You can read more about the study in the post, “Life Purpose May Help Reduce Heart Attack Risk.” Both studies indicate that there are positive health assets that lead to better health. A logical next step would be to identify interventions to enhance these assets to improve our health. The Psychological Bulletin investigation suggests one way to improve heart health may be to increase psychological well-being. With continued research, we hope the field of Positive Health can recognize new avenues for intervention to help protect us against disease, leading to healthier lives. 

Be sure to stay tuned for more results.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.