Heart and soul

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

Modern Healthcare - - OPINIONS EDITORIALS - DAVID MAY As­sis­tant Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tor/fea­tures

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.

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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