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The effects of optimism on health

Alexandre Delbos

Scientists and researchers have found many relationships between our health and our happiness -- it seems that the two are not mutually exclusive. Dr. Laura Kubzansky is a professor of social and behavioral sciences and co-director of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness, a new center at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her task, in the coming years, is to understand the relationship between psychological well-being and physical health.

“Happiness has lots of different ways of influencing health,” Kubzansky says. “There have been quite a few studies trying to evaluate whether psychological well-being would influence physical health and I would say the strongest body of work is looking at cardiovascular disease.”

Studies of this kind typically start with healthy individuals and measure their optimism. Researchers then stick with these patients to see if optimism determines the likelihood of developing disease over a set period of time.

“Folks that are the most optimistic are at about half the risk of developing heart disease in the period of follow-up relative to the people with the lowest levels of optimism,” Kubzansky says.

Even after adjusting for family history, socio-economic status or lifestyle (smoking, eating an unbalanced diet, etc.), there is still robust evidence that people who are happier fare better when it comes to disease.

These studies also take into account depression and other negative emotional states (which are known to be linked with higher rates of disease).

“In general, higher levels of happiness -- or higher levels of optimism, which is really the state that people have looked at the most -- are strongly related to reduced disease risk,” says Kubzanksy.

Hear much more on health and happiness this weekend on "Take Care." We're bringing you an hour on how happiness is measured, how to hardwire your brain to be more receptive to happiness and even tips on how to become happier. Tune in tomorrow at 6 a.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on WRVO.

Support for this story comes from The Health Foundation of Western and Central New York.