The year is 1930. You’re a young nun in the Midwestern United States, looking forward to taking your final vows. Your Mother Superior has asked you to write a short autobiography of your life to date. Nothing too long. Just a review of your early schooling, your parents, and any notable events in your life leading up to this event.
Now here’s the twist: If you write an essay that conveys a lot of positive emotion (happiness, interest, love, hope, gratitude, contentment, etc.) you get to live (on average) 10 years longer than if you write just a regular essay. Yes, that’s right. The happiest essays get awarded with an extra ten years of life.
So you get to work. What type of an essay would you write?
This is not the fanciful start of a Hollywood film, but suggestive of a real-life, longitudinal study of an order of Catholic nuns (all born before 1917), the purpose of which is to study (among other things) ageing and health. An enormous benefit of this research is that the sisters, unlike regular study participants, all lived together and had very similar life factors. As a result, any differences found between them that could be linked to longevity could be just that - without researchers having to chalk the difference up to other factors, such as a difference in what the nuns ate, what their healthcare was like, or what they did for a living.
At one point, researchers discovered a collection of autobiographical essays written by the nuns in the study, from their very early days in the convent. These essays were wonderful snapshots of each nun at the start of her career. They were uniformly forward-looking and positive in nature. Nevertheless, the researchers noted that some of the essays had a much more cheerful tone than others.
Researchers put each essay into one of four categories of ‘cheerfulness’. And what they found, over time, was that those nuns’ whose essays were in the highest category outlived their less expressive sisters by an average of 10 years. What was going on?
The researchers summed the findings up as validation of a process other psychologists had also been noting. This was that, when bad things happen, we become stressed and our heart rates and adrenaline rise. If this happens too often, the body can become worn down. Yet if we can approach a problem with an optimistic or cheerful attitude, the positive emotions this brings forth can ‘un-do’ the damaging effect of stress on the body. Over time, this ‘un-doing’ benefit of positive emotion can add up in far less stress-related wear and tear and, theoretically, a longer life.
In the Nun’s writings, we can see a snapshot of how readily available positive emotions were to each writer through the experiences and images they conjure up. Some of the young Nuns were quick to reference more joy, contentment and gratitude than were there more matter-of-fact counterparts. And it was these young Nuns who ended up living longer.
Of course, the study is based on a 300-word assignment, not a complete life. The essays do not describe how each nun worked through the trials life introduced. But they do suggest that for those with more positive emotion on their radar, SOMETHING happened that translated into better health outcomes.
Our take? While the study isn’t a definitive answer, as far as longitudinal studies go, this one comes pretty close. So, when it’s time to get to work..which essay would you write?
Danner, D., Snowden, D., & Friesen, W. (2001) Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.
Fredrickson, B., Mancuso, R., Branigan, C., Tugade, M. (2000) The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24 (4), 237-258