Depression and chronic stress can be serious strains on heart health. But can positive emotional states do more for the heart than keep people at an average risk for signs of coronary heart disease?

Contentment is a continuum—just because someone isn't suffering from anxiety doesn't mean that they are terribly optimistic or feel fulfilled. So a team of researchers examined data from a long-term study of U.K. civil servants to see whether feeling good about their lives could actually provide above-average cardiac health.

About 8,000 middle-aged participants were asked: "All things considered, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you" with each of the following: your job, leisure time, standard of living, health, sex life, "marital or love relationship," and "yourself as a person." The findings were published online July 4 in the European Heart Journal.

People who reported having the highest overall levels of satisfaction (ranked on a numerical scale) were about 26 percent less likely than the unsatisfied to have preliminary manifestations of coronary heart disease, such as chest pains—also known as definite angina. Moderately satisfied workers were about 20 percent less likely than the lowest-raters to have these heart problems.

The most important categories for heart health were job, family life, sex life and one's self—high satisfaction in each accounted for about a 12 percent dip in a person's risk for moderate cardiac troubles.

The contented workers did not seem significantly protected against heart attack or other deadly coronary disease incidents, but, as the researchers pointed out, "angina is a strong predictor of future cardiovascular events." And as the participants were only, on average, about 50 years old, the less frequent chest pains in the especially satisfied might indicate that they will have healthier hearts down the road.

So guarding against heart disease might not just be a matter of living a healthy lifestyle and minimizing excessive stress. As lead author Julia Boehm, of the Harvard School of Public Health, noted in a prepared statement, people who are already at a higher risk for heart disease might benefit from "interventions to bolster psychological states—not just alleviate negative" ones.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/deanm1974