Video: Does happy equal healthy?

By Chief medical editor
NBC News
updated 3/6/2007 7:46:48 PM ET 2007-03-07T00:46:48

Happiness: Is it a state of mind? Or a state of health? A growing body of research says it's both.

Dr. Donald Rosen is a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Sciences University.

"Science is just beginning to be able to measure, understand and propose mechanisms for a way of attaining a state of mind that can have as significant an impact on health as diet, exercise or not smoking," he says.

And Carnegie Mellon University researchers found that "happy" subjects exposed to cold and flu viruses were less susceptible to illness than their more negative counterparts.

"If you're high in happiness, you're about one-third less likely to develop a cold," says Dr. Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon.

One of the most remarkable studies on health, happiness and longevity was done in a most unusual place, at Villa Assumpta in Baltimore and at six other convents around the U.S. Researchers looked at short autobiographies of 678 nuns. They found that those who used the most "positive" words lived — on average — 10 years longer than nuns expressing more negative emotions.

"If we hope, we cope," says Sister Genevieve Kunkel. "If we don't, we mope."

Kunkel says attitude has made all the difference.

"If you're optimistic, if you're positive, if you're futuristic, don't look back on the past," she says. "It's very dear, but it's darn dead."

At 96, Kunkel has never had a major health problem, and only recently — and reluctantly —started using a cane.

"I look back on a happy life with prayerful gratitude," she says.

Words to live by, indeed.

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