It’s impossible to measure emotional well-being with the kind of objective numbers we use to track cholesterol and blood pressure. Nevertheless, there’s near-universal agreement that emotional well-being influences health, and many studies have confirmed an association between depression and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. But does the opposite hold true? Does satisfaction with life in general or specific aspects of it reduce the risk of heart disease?
That’s what researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health set out to investigate. They asked nearly 8,000 people living in Britain to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale of 1 to 7 (the higher the number, the better) in eight areas: marital or love relationship, leisure activities, standard of living, job, health, family life, sex life, and feelings about self.
Five years later, the researchers identified 293 cases of coronary artery disease among the participants. These ranged in severity from angina (heart-related chest pain from clogged arteries) to nonfatal heart attack or death from heart disease. People with the most satisfying lives overall were 26% less likely to have developed coronary artery disease than those reporting the lowest satisfaction levels. Most of the risk-reduction power was packed into four aspects of life satisfaction—job, family, sex, and self (European Heart Journal, November 2011).
Overall satisfaction with life reduced the risk of angina much more than it reduced the risk of death or heart attack. That finding could be related to the relatively young age (average 50 years) of the people studied, which would make chest pain—a typically early sign of clogged heart arteries—more common than the more serious consequences that tend to strike older people.
This study doesn’t fully answer the question of whether satisfaction with life helps protect the heart. While further research into this area is conducted, you’re better off doing what we know protects hearts and arteries—don’t smoke, exercise, and eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. But while you’re at it, why not try to wrest a little more satisfaction out of life?