Harvard Heart Letter

The benefits of positive thinking after a heart attack


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A heart attack or unstable angina (sudden chest pain that happens at rest) usually requires a hospital stay. After such events—which doctors call acute coronary syndromes—about one in five people ends up back in the hospital with heart disease or dies in the following year. But there's a bright side: new research suggests that survivors with an optimistic attitude are less likely to be readmitted to the hospital with heart problems.

The study, published in the January 2016 Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, included 164 people, mostly men, who were hospitalized for acute coronary syndromes. Two weeks after the event, they filled out questionnaires designed to measure their sense of optimism and gratitude.

Optimism was linked to greater physical activity and lower rates of hospitalization during the following six months—but gratitude was not. Why the difference? As the authors speculate, gratitude focuses on the past and may have less effect on future behavior. Optimism, on the other hand, "can be a more action-based cognition—a sense that one can do something to reach a goal—which may promote beneficial changes in health behavior."

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