The Nun Study was conducted by Danner, Snowdon, Friesen (2001) from the University of Kentucky. The study’s formal title was “Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the Nun Study.”
Living Longer Through Positive Emotions—The Nun Study.
They examined the relationship between positive emotions and longevity in a sample of 180 nuns. Why did they choose nuns?
- Nuns were an ideal group for such a study because many of the factors affecting physical health were controlled or minimized.
- Nuns don’t smoke or drink excessively; they live in similar life circumstances;
- They are childless, so they have the same reproductive histories; and they eat the same bland diet.
What led the researchers to believe that a person’s emotional life might predict longevity?
- First, prior research supports the connection between emotions and health. Negative emotions suppresses the immune system and other aspects of physiological functioning. Thereby, increase the risk of disease. Positive emotions seem to enhance these same processes and thus reduce the risk of disease.
- Emotional expressiveness, such as whether we have a positive and cheerful outlook or a negative and more guarded outlook, tends to be fairly consistent over a person’s lifetime, from childhood through adulthood.
- Finally. temperament is known to influence how well a person copes with the stress and challenges of life. People with cheerful temperaments and positive outlooks fare better than those with less cheerful and more negative outlooks.
Longevity may be related to a variety of factors including heredity, gender, socioeconomic status, nutrition, social support, medical care, and personality and behavioral characteristics.
The Nun Study.
The nuns in Danner and colleagues‘ study were asked to write a a brief 2- to 3-page autobiographical sketch as part of their religious vows. These sketches were written in the 1930s and 1940s when the sisters were about 22 years old and just beginning their careers with the church.
Then, they coded each autobiography by counting the number of positive-, negative, and neutral-emotion words and sentences that it contained. Because few of the autobiographies contained negative emotions. However, the researchers concentrated on the number of positive emotion words, positive-emotion sentences, and the number of different positive emotions expressed.
Here there are two sample portions of autobiographies-
Sister A—coded as low in positive emotion:
I was born on September 26, 1909, the eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys . . I spent My candidate year in the Motherhouse, teaching chemistry and Second Year at the 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.
Sister B—coded as high in positive emotion:
God started my life off well by bestowing on me a grace of inestimable value. The past year, which I 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.
They analyzed scores in relation to mortality and survival data for the same group of women 60 years later. The surviving nuns were between 75 and 94 years of age. Forty-two percent of the sisters had died by the time of the follow up study.
The most cheerful nuns lived a full decade longer than the least cheerful! By age 80, some 60% of the least cheerful group had died, compared to only 25% for the most cheerful sisters.
The probability of survival to an advanced age was strongly related to the early-life expression of positive emotions. According to the results of the Nun Study, the phrase, “don’t worry, be happy” is excellent advice.
You may live longer!
- Baumgardner, S. R., & Crothers, M. K. (2009). Positive Psychology: Pearson Education.