Accentuating the Positives: Positive Health

Aug 2, 2011, 12:44 PM, Posted by

What comes to mind when you think of medicine? If you’re like most people, it is preventing disease and treating them when they are sick.

But health is more than the mere absence of disease. So what if there were options for medicine beyond the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure of disease?

Researchers who work in the emerging field of Positive Health are exploring the possibility that people have and can develop positive health assets that keep them healthier and help them recover more quickly when they are sick. The research is taking an empirical approach to developing the field. Positive Health research explores associations between health assets -- including subjective factors like optimism, functional factors like stable marriage, and biological factors like high heart rate variability – and people’s health.

The research is starting to gain traction in health and medical literature.

  • Health Psychology published a study finding that positive psychological well-being – defined as emotional vitality and optimism – was associated with lower levels of risk for heart disease. The study re-analyzed existing data from a survey of 7,942 middle-aged men and women over five years who were measured through their responses to statements about purpose in life, mental energy and the expectation of more good things than bad to occur in the near future. Positive psychological well-being was associated with a modest, but consistent reduced risk of fatal heart disease, first heart attack or first definite angina. 
  • The European Heart Journal published a study stating that higher levels of life satisfaction were associated with lower risk of heart disease. The study re-analyzed existing data from a survey of 7,956 British civil servants who rated their satisfaction with eight domains of life: love relationships, leisure activities, standard of living, job, health, family, sex life and self. Four of these life domains—job, family life, sex life and self satisfaction—were independently associated with a 12 percent reduced risk of heart disease, as was higher overall life satisfaction.
  • The journal Stroke published a study linking higher levels of optimism to lower risk for stroke. The study assessed 6,044 American adults for optimism and tracked their incidence of stroke. Participants rated items such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best” on a six-point scale, resulting in an overall score between 3 and 18. Each unit increase in optimism correlated to a 9 percent decrease in stroke risk during a two-year follow-up period.

Positive Health changes the way we think about health and health care—it reframes the goal of our health care system from treating and preventing disease to building more robust health. This  innovative approach to health and well-being  promotes people’s positive health assets—their strengths that can help protect against disease and lead to a healthier, longer life. The focus is not on prevention or treatment of disease, but instead on building an individual’s “good” assets that are desirable in their own right.

With the support of the Pioneer Portfolio, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., project director and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a team of researchers are working to identify these assets. If identified and validated, the next step would be to design potent, low-cost approaches to enhance well-being and help protect against physical and mental illness.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.