Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the nun study. Danner DD, Snowdon DA, Friesen WV.

Source: Department of Preventive Medicine and Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, College of Medicine, University of Kentucky, Lexington 40536-0230, USA. [email protected]


Handwritten autobiographies from 180 Catholic nuns, composed when participants were a mean age of 22 years, were scored for emotional content and related to survival during ages 75 to 95. A strong inverse association was found between positive emotional content in these writings and risk of mortality in late life (p < .001). As the quartile ranking of positive emotion in early life increased, there was a stepwise decrease in risk of mortality resulting in a 2.5-fold difference between the lowest and highest quartiles. Positive emotional content in early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later. Underlying mechanisms of balanced emotional states are discussed.

PMID: 11374751

OK, now that you’ve finished with all the nun jokes and/or Catholic jokes, think about this: It means you could live longer, literally, by having a positive attitude about your life.

I’ve never ascribed to the “airy fairy” approach to living so I don’t sweep negative energy out of my office by burning sage, but this one got my attention (since I don’t appear to be dead yet). We’veĀ  been hearing for years, since the inception of the Volkswagen bug and the “happy face,” that we should smile and be happy. I didn’t care what that happy face meant. I thought it was stupid and the person who drew it should do hard time.

I signed up for the Eeyore school of pessimism early on because that’s how I felt and that’s what I believed. What did I know, I was only in my twenties? Life was hard and I wasn’t going to pretend it wasn’t. I was going to tell the truth about things, all of the depressing, terrible, awful things in my life. And I made sure anyone within earshot heard me. I didn’t get sick and die young nor did my life remain all of those awful things because I was always working to make it better, and my ship finally arrived.

What ship? The ship of old age where everyone on it who wakes up in the morning is just happy as can be that they woke up and, after waking up, they go down the list of things they’re happy about in addition to waking up. Us oldies are happy if we’re not sick, happy if the rent is paid, happy if the sun is shining, happy to see a rose in bloom, and I’m not kidding. In my youth I wouldn’t have been happy unless a ship full of gold bars arrived and each one had my name stamped on it. Now I’m just grateful my ship doesn’t have a hole in it.

And, by the looks of this abstract, nuns or not, we could all practice happiness even if we don’t feel particularly happy. I didn’t say dance in glee or practice belly laughs if you feel mad, sad, hurt, frustrated, etc., just smile. Think positive thoughts. When a negative thought comes into your mind push it aside, since you noticed it and have taken note of whatever it is, and think of something that makes you happy. Whatever makes YOU happy.

There isn’t anyone awake who doesn’t have bad times and bad feelings for shorter or even longer periods of time. The question is, will it serve us to mull on those things or will it serve us to practice happiness? Since I’m past the sixty mark I intend to become a happiness practitioner immediately, hoping I haven’t already cut my life short by ten years. No matter what age you are, it can’t hurt to practice having happy thoughts after, of course, duly noting what’s not working for you.

Doing anything repeatedly turns it into a habit if you do it long enough to allow the habit to form. If at first, you find making yourself have a happy thought, depressing, that’s O.K. If you practice daily or as often as you think about it, your mind will soon produce real happy thoughts that you didn’t have to work for. And, according to this study you’ll be rewarded with more years and that should make you very happy. Train your brain just like you train your body or your dog.