The Roman poet Juvenal may have been right when he declared, “A healthy mind in a healthy body,” at least according to Harvard researchers, who said positive psychological well-being may reduce the risks for cardiovascular disease.
Julia Boehm, PhD, and Laura D. Kubzansky, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, performed a review of dozens of studies to determine the relationship between positive psychological well-being (PPWB) and processes that may help guard against CVD. Although previous studies have focused largely on the relationship between psychological ill-being and health, the Harvard study is designed to better understand the relationship between psychological well-being and health, they wrote.
“Behavioral and biological mechanisms are the two most prominent pathways by which psychosocial factors may influence disease-related outcomes,” the researchers wrote. “However, most research to date has focused on how positive psychological well-being is associated with the absence of unhealthy behaviors or biological dysfunction.”
Because positive psychological well-being is a large concept and not all of its characteristics are related to CV health, the Harvard team split positive psychological well-being into different approaches, two of which are based on Aristotle’s philosophies about “the good life” — eudaimonic, which is focused on personal growth and finding purpose in life, and hedonic, an approach centered on pleasurable feelings and happiness. The third approach was defined as optimism, which was the “most robustly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular events,” according to the researchers.
However, using centuries-old philosophical definitions posed some difficulties while working in a modern context, the investigators said.
“In the practice of modern-day psychological science, it can be difficult to measure such concepts separately,” Boehm said in an interview. “That is, the two types of well-being probably overlap. People who have high levels of eudaimonic well-being also probably experience high levels of hedonic well-being, which makes measurement difficult.”
Reviewing data culled from previous studies, all of which reported on the level of participants’ psychological well-being, Boehm and Kubzansky looked at studies that examined patients’ experiences of heart attacks and strokes or health behaviors such as smoking, physical activity and sleep, and biological functions most relevant to CV health such as CV and metabolic processes. They summarized the compiled data to determine the extent to which psychological well-being is associated with CV events, health behaviors and biological functions.
Results showed that positive psychological well-being “protects consistently against CVD, independently of traditional risk factors and ill-being,” according to the researchers. Optimism and hedonic well-being, more than eudaimonic well-being, was more consistently associated with cardiovascular health, they found, but limited evidence regarding eudaimonic well-being could be a factor in that outcome.
“Our findings suggest that it may be beneficial to cardiovascular health if, in addition to fixing psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, we also focused on bolstering positive psychological functioning, like happiness, purpose, satisfaction, optimism and meaning,” Boehm said.
Disclosure: The researchers reported no relevant financial disclosures.