Academic Minute
5:00 am
Fri June 6, 2014

Dr. Julia Boehm, Chapman University - Happiness and Health

Does being happy make you healthier? Is, perhaps, the inverse also true?

Dr. Julia Boehm, assistant professor in psychology at Chapman University, is studying the correlation between mind and body.

Dr. Julia K. Boehm is an assistant professor in psychology at Chapman University. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Riverside and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Boehm’s research centers broadly on well-being and investigates how people can thrive both mentally and physically. More specifically, her research examines whether positive psychological characteristics such as optimism and life satisfaction are associated with improved cardiovascular health. She recently authored an extensive review in Psychological Bulletin on this topic, and has conducted several prospective investigations of heart disease in epidemiological cohorts. In addition, she is interested in the behavioral and biological processes that are relevant for cardiovascular health. Dr. Boehm’s goal is to identify those psychological characteristics that contribute to healthy trajectories of cardiovascular functioning across the lifespan. Her work has been featured in many news outlets including Reuters, The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC News, and now The Academic Minute.

About Dr. Boehm

Dr. Julia Boehm - Happiness and Health

Although being happy inherently feels good, do happy, more optimistic people enjoy tangible benefits beyond simple pleasure? In the context of cardiovascular disease – which is the leading cause of death worldwide – it does indeed appear that happier people enjoy better cardiovascular health compared with their less happy peers.

My colleagues and I have found that among initially healthy individuals, men and women who report the greatest levels of optimism, satisfaction, and emotional vitality have a reduced risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular-related death approximately five years later. Moreover, in patients already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, those with greater levels of well-being show a slower progression of the disease over time. Notably, these associations persist despite accounting for traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as cigarette smoking, socioeconomic status, and depression.

What might explain the protective associations between psychological well-being and cardiovascular health? Happier, more optimistic people tend to have healthier biological function and engage in healthier behaviors. For example, we find that the most optimistic middle-aged men and women tend to have healthier levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and carotenoids (which are antioxidants found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables). Furthermore, happier, more optimistic individuals are less likely to smoke cigarettes, and are more likely to be physically active and eat fruits and vegetables.

In sum, my research indicates that greater feelings of happiness, optimism, and satisfaction confer tangible benefits to individuals, particularly in the domain of cardiovascular health. Although more research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of how psychological well-being protects against cardiovascular disease over time, our findings have important implications for prevention and intervention strategies. In addition to repairing psychological deficits like depression, bolstering psychological well-being may help to foster cardiovascular health.

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