Happiness is more than a fleeting emotion. Its benefits can last for years. Your chances of enjoying cardiometabolic health in your 20’s and 30’s go way up if you have high self-esteem and feel loved, optimistic, and happy when you’re a teenager, a new study finds. This is especially true for Black youth.

Cardiometabolic health covers a wide range of conditions and risk factors including high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, inflammation and being overweight. The Baltimore researchers made the connection between happiness as a teenager and good cardiac health after analyzing data on nearly 3,500 U.S. high schoolers (average age 16 years) who were enrolled in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Close family ties, positive self-esteem and an optimistic view of life in your teens can protect your heart later in life.

Nearly half of the teenaged participants were girls; 67 percent were white; 15 percent were Black; 11 percent were Latino; and 6 percent reported their race as either Native American, Asian or “other.”

The researchers periodically collected data on the participants’ health and well-being, with the most recent data collection occurring in 2018 when their average age was thirty-eight years.

“We learned a lot in the last few decades about the impact of discrimination and other social risks youth of color face that may explain their elevated rates of cardiometabolic disease, however, much less attention is paid to the inherent strengths they possess and the ways those strengths may be leveraged to advance health equity,” the lead author of the study, Farah Qureshi, said in a statement. “In this study we wanted to shift the paradigm in public health beyond the traditional focus on deficits to one that concentrates on resource building.”

To accomplish this, the study’s researchers went back to the participants’ initial survey responses when they were teenagers. They identified five mental health qualities that were related to better cardiometabolic health outcomes: 1) optimism, 2) happiness, 3) self-esteem, 4) a sense of belonging and 5) feeling loved.

Black individuals were the least likely to maintain good heart health over time. It's not yet clear why.

The data was then cross-referenced with health information recorded over three decades in order to see whether teenagers who have more of these positive assets were more likely to maintain optimal heart health when they were adults.

Here’s what the study reported:

  • Overall, 55 percent of youth had zero to one positive mental health asset, while 29 percent had two to three assets and 16 percent had four to five.
  • As young adults, only 12 percent of participants maintained cardiometabolic health over time, and white youth were more likely to maintain good health later in life compared to Black or Latino youth.
  • Teens with four to five positive mental health assets were 69 percent more likely to maintain positive cardiometabolic health as young adults.
  • There was a cumulative effect, with each additional mental health asset conferring roughly a 12 percent greater likelihood of positive cardiometabolic health.
  • Although psychological assets were found to be protective across all racial and ethnic groups, the largest health benefits were noted among Black youth. Black teens also reported having more positive mental health assets than youth of any other racial or ethnic groups.

Even though Black teens had the most mental health assets and derived the most health benefits, there were still racial disparities in cardiometabolic health in adulthood. Black individuals were the least likely to maintain good heart health over time. It's not yet clear why this was so, but diet and other health behaviors may play a role.

Continued research may hold the solution. “We need more large-scale studies to monitor these and other positive mental health factors starting in childhood to understand how these assets may influence health and disease over the life course. This information may help us identify new ways to improve health and reduce disparities,” suggests Qureshi, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study is published in JAHA, the Journal of the American Heart Association.