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Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the Nun study

Deborah D. Danner, David A. Snowdon, and Wallace V. Friesen
University of Kentucky

Published in 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology', 2001, 80(5), 804-813

Handwritten biographies of 180 Catholic nuns, composed when they were an average age of 22 years, were examined and scored for positive, negative and neutral emotional content.  Beginning in 1930, each sister who took her final vows was asked to write a short biography of her life, including details of childhood experiences, influences that led them to the convent, religious life, and outstanding events.  Emotional content was coded as positive if the nuns used words referring to experiences involving accomplishment, amusement, contentment, gratitude, happiness, hope, interest, and love.  Negative emotions involved words referring to anger, contempt, disgust, disinterest, fear, sadness, and shame.  The researchers recorded mortality of the nuns, who were aged between 75 and 95 years, over a 9-year period from 1991.  76 nuns had died but more than half of them exceeded their life expectancy.  

The results demonstrated a very strong association between positive emotional content in autobiographies written in early adulthood and longevity almost 60 years later.  76 nuns had died but more than half of them exceeded their life expectancy.  And the nuns whose writings focused on the positive emotions experienced by themselves or others survived the longest.  

The relative homogeneity of the population sample used in this study made it particularly unique, as all the participants were female, had the same reproductive and marital histories, shared similar social activities and support networks, did not smoke or drink excessive amounts of alcohol, had similar occupations and socio-economic status, and had the same access to medical care.  Thus, factors that may have influenced longevity in other population samples were either minimised or eliminated in the present study.

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