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Almighty Optimism : Findings from the Nun Study

Submitted by on June 18, 2013 – 8:16 am 3 Comments

jill port bwBy Jill Hayhurst

Happiness is a tricky thing. It’s hard to define, yet people generally want it, and work really hard to get it. Research suggests that people are also notoriously terrible at predicting what will actually make them happy, which might explain cultural obsession with material wealth. Luckily, happiness is a field that science has been cavorting through over the last couple decades (arguable the last few centuries), and we are starting to have answers to some of the big happiness questions. Who is happy, and why? And since we’re asking, what is the point of happiness?

I like the last question, as the answers are a bit trickier to get at than the who and what of happiness.

As it turns out that happiness is not just about kittens riding turtles, but has many tangible outcomes as well.  Which brings us to an amazing landmark study has shown that happiness predicts longevity. Happy people tend to live longer. You don’t need to take my word on it though, as it’s the nuns who have the answers.

Researchers Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen (2001) have been studying a group of over 600 nuns since the 1990s. For one part of their study, they examined the language 180 nuns used in autobiographies they wrote as they first took their holy orders, when they were about 22 years old. The language of the diaries was coded for emotional content, or the amount of happy, negative, and neutral words and phrases present.

The key aspect of this study that makes it so impressive is that the nuns all lived very similar lives. So things that we know can significantly influence how long people live, like diet, exercise, social support, marital status (yes, marital status), were comparable or the exactly the same for all the nuns. The researchers split the nuns into quartiles, and compared the happiest nuns (with the most positive language in their diaries) to the least happy nuns. Below is an example diary passage by a nun who scored high for positive emotion.

“God started my life off well by bestowing upon me a grace of inestimable value… . The past year which I have spent as a candidate studying at Notre Dame College has been a very happy one. Now I look forward with eager joy to receiving the Holy Habit of Our Lady and to a life of union with Love Divine.”

As you can see, she was pretty pumped on life. Fast-forward about 60 years, and the researchers were able to show that the most positive nuns lived on average 9 years longer than the least positive nuns. Put another way, by the age of 80, 60% of the least positive nuns had died.

There are many ways by which happiness can lead to longevity. Martin Seligman maintains that resilience, or the ability to deal with adversity in a way that promotes health, might be one important avenue. Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows that positive emotions can diminish the effects of negative emotions on the nervous system. We also know that stress is bad for health, and happy people tend to be less stressed. But that particular explanation focuses on the lack of negativity in a persons’ life, not necessarily the presence of positivity. For example, the nun’s entry below doesn’t emphasise stress or adversity, but she’s not the apogee of cheerfulness either:  “I was born on September 26, 1909, the eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys . . . . My candidate year was spent in the Motherhouse, teaching Chemistry and Second Year Latin at Notre Dame Institute.  With God’s grace, I intend to do my best for our Order, for the spread of religion and for my personal sanctification.”

So what are the key differences between negative and positive emotions? And how does that link to overall happiness, well-being, life satisfaction and health?  These questions have nurtured some divinely interesting research, but I will save that for another discussion. In the meantime, I hope you take some time to nurture your own divinely interesting and positive self.

For more information on the Nun Study, check out their official site

Danner, D., Snowden, D. A., & Friesen, W. V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the Nun Study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), 804-813.

Jill Hayhurst is a PhD student at the University of Otago who is exploring the links between belonging, wellbeing, generosity, community, social justice and participation. Her research goal at the moment is to contribute to our understanding of what makes people engaged citizens, in the hopes that we can create resilient and thriving individuals and communities. She loves tramping, crafting, surfing tiny waves, and long walks with her dog and brand new husband around Port Chalmers.

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  • Raven says:

    Hey Jill,
    Wonderful post – I also think there is really something to be said for the Tibetan traditions in Buddhism which talk about acknowledging all emotions and sitting with them rather than fighting them but also embracing the positive ones. I’m not religious and wasn’t raised as such but I think there are so many things that we miss out on by trying to aim for a strictly secular society!
    Thanks for the food for thought 🙂

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  • Dieter says:

    A university professor recently gave a televised lecture on happiness and referred to the this study, and others, about what makes us happy, or doesn’t, and the consequences. But her very first statement was that our lifelong outlook on life was heavily dependent on our sense of “Security and Attachment” in the first four years of our lives. Ergo: if you want to have happy and healthy children, you must give them love and emotional nourishment when they are young.

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  • Charlotte says:

    Totally agree. Although for those who didn’t get that – attitude is one thing we can control

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