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May
May

Heart and soul

An optimistic and playful spirit might be just what the doctor orders


By David May
Posted: April 21, 2012 - 12:01 am ET
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Studies, reports, analyses and academic papers abound during any given week in healthcare circles. The content can seem arcane and maybe almost impenetrable, but other times these documents could be the research equivalent of a riveting bestseller.

One study last week certainly caught the attention of the mainstream press, most likely because of its universal appeal. This one could really be taken to heart … quite literally. Published online April 17 in the Psychological Bulletin, the research examined how having an optimistic outlook on life might protect one's cardiovascular health. And the findings offer good news.

We all know the scourge of cardiovascular disease. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the U.S., with cerebrovascular diseases No. 4 on the list of the Top 10 killers. And the American Heart Association says that more than 2,200 people die of cardiovascular disease every day, or about one death every 39 seconds.

The new study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that one way to avoid being counted among those statistics is to exhibit positive psychological attributes. In other words, try to be happy! In a review of more than 200 studies published in two major databases, researchers determined that certain “psychological assets” such as optimism and positive emotion offer increased protection against cardiovascular disease. And these factors also appear to slow the progression of disease.

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However, “The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive,” Harvard research fellow and lead author Julia Boehm said in a news release, noting that factors such as happiness and life satisfaction were associated with reduced health risk regardless of factors such as age, socioeconomic status, smoking status and weight.

It's all very encouraging. And the findings are especially heartening because they show the importance of fending off the pessimism and negative advertising we're sure to encounter from our politicians as this election year advances. We'll hear that the sky is falling … we're on the wrong track … Republicans are heartless … the president is clueless. This election season could be off-the-charts nasty. For our heart health, let's try to keep everything in perspective and work to stay optimistic. (But please let's not take this study as an excuse to reprise the late-1980s hit tune “Don't Worry, Be Happy.”)

OK, singing can certainly lift one's spirits, but an even better option might be something we can learn from our children: the love of playtime.

The role and importance of play in our well-being, no matter what a person's age, is the subject of the cover story in this month's issue of Spirit, the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines. A tip of the wings to the editorial staff for a package of stories reminding us how much we all need to let loose a lot more often.

It should be quite intuitive to know that everyone needs downtime for recreation and relaxation. We've heard the old saw about “all work and no play.” But it's nice to know that there's actually science behind it. The Spirit stories cite the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, co-author of a popular book titled Play, published in 2009, and founder of the National Institute for Play. He points out not only the physical benefits of play, but also its value to cognitive abilities and its role in unleashing creativity.

The best part about play is, of course, that's it just plain fun. It makes us happy. And that gets to the heart of it all.


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