Saturday, June 4, 2011

Get Happy

The new book


"In the mid-1980s, 120 men from San Francisco had their first heart attacks, and they served as the untreated control group in the massive Multiple Risk Factor Intervention

The 120 untreated controls...were of great interest to Gregory Buchanan, then a graduate student at Penn, and to me because so much was known about their first heart attacks: extent of damage to the heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, and lifestyle—all the traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In addition, the men were all interviewed about their lives: family, job, and hobbies. We took every single “because” statement from each of their videotaped interviews and coded it for optimism and pessimism.

Within eight and a half years, half the men had died of a second heart attack, and we opened the sealed envelope. Could we predict who would have a second heart attack? None of the usual risk factors predicted death: not blood pressure, not cholesterol, not even how extensive the damage from the first heart attack. Only optimism, eight and a half years earlier, predicted a second heart attack—of the sixteen most pessimistic men, fifteen died. Of the sixteen most optimistic men, only five died....

"All studies of optimism and CVD (cardiovascular disease) converge on the conclusion that optimism is strongly related to protection from cardiovascular disease. This holds even correcting for all the traditional risk factors such as obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol use, high cholesterol, and hypertension. It even holds correcting for depression, correcting for perceived stress, and correcting for momentary positive emotions. It holds over different ways of measuring optimism. Most importantly, the effect is bipolar, with high optimism protecting people compared to the average level of optimism and pessimism, and pessimism hurting people compared to the average.

Why optimists are less vulnerable to disease. How might optimism work to make people less vulnerable and pessimism to make people more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease? The possibilities divide into three large categories:

  1.      Optimists take action and have healthier lifestyles. Optimists believe that their actions matter, whereas pessimists believe they are helpless and nothing they do will matter. Optimists try, while pessimists lapse into passive helplessness. Optimists therefore act on medical advice readily....Optimists may take better care of themselves.
         Even more generally, people with high life satisfaction (which correlates highly with optimism) are much more likely to diet, not to smoke, and to exercise regularly than people with lower life satisfaction. According to one study, happy people also sleep better than unhappy people.
         Optimists not only follow medical advice readily, they also take action to avoid bad events, whereas pessimists are passive: optimists are more likely to seek safety in tornado shelters when there is a tornado warning than pessimists, who may believe the tornado is God’s will. The more bad events that befall you, the more illness.

  2.      Social support. The more friends and the more love in your life, the less illness. ..People who have one person whom they would be comfortable calling at three in the morning to tell their troubles were healthier....Lonely people are markedly less healthy than sociable people.  Happy people have richer social networks than unhappy people, and social connectedness contributes to a lack of disability as we age. Misery may love company, but company does not love misery, and the ensuing loneliness of pessimists may be a path to illness.
  3.      Biological mechanisms. There are a variety of plausible biological paths. One is the immune system. The blood of optimists ha[ve] a feistier response to threat—more infection-fighting white blood cells...—than the pessimists. 
         Another possibility is common genetics: optimistic and happy people might have genes that ward off cardiovascular disease or cancer.
         Another potential biological path is a pathological circulatory response to repeated stress. Pessimists give up and suffer more stress, whereas optimists cope better with stress. Repeated episodes of stress, particularly when one is helpless, likely mobilize the stress hormone cortisol and other circulatory responses that induce or exacerbate damage to the walls of blood vessels and promote atherosclerosis."