Look on the bright side and survive longer

Brief autobiographies written more than 60 years ago by a group of then young Catholic nuns have now become a matter of life or death. Those nuns who chronicled positive emotions in their twenties have lived markedly longer than those who recounted emotionally neutral personal histories, a new study finds.

This result, which derives from a study group with unprecedented similarity in lifestyle and social status, supports earlier evidence that expressing happiness, interest, love, and other positive feelings enhances physical health, say psychologist Deborah D. Danner of the University of Kentucky in Lexington and her colleagues. The nuns were participating in a study on aging and Alzheimer’s disease (SN: 5/18/96, p. 312).

“Our results should spur research into the poorly understood link between positive emotions and longevity,” remarks study coauthor Wallace V. Friesen, also of Kentucky. “I never would have guessed this association is so strong.”

Danner’s team analyzed positive emotional content in life stories written by 180 nuns when they were, on average, 22 years old. The scientists then noted which nuns had since died and when.

Nuns whose stories contained the most sentences expressing any of 10 positive emotions lived an average of 7 years longer than those whose accounts included the fewest such sentences, the team reports in the May Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers also found that longevity increased by 9-1/2 years for nuns whose life stories contained the most words referring to positive emotions and by 10-1/2 years for nuns who used the greatest number of different positive-emotion words.

The autobiographies included few negative emotions, partly because they were to be read by the congregation’s Mother Superior, the researchers say. But individuals conveyed a range of positive emotions. For example, an emotional account portrayed college life as “very happy” and looked forward to a “life of union with Love Divine.” A more neutral autobiography listed college activities and told of hope “to do my best for our Order.”

Danner’s team next plans to look for links of low positive emotion to particular causes of death, such as heart disease.

The new results strengthen the suspected association between expressing positive emotions and living longer, says psychologist James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, who has found a link between writing about emotions and physical health in other groups.

Outside convents, social status has been shown to correlate strongly with longevity, even for celebrities. Among actors and actresses ever nominated for an Academy Award in a leading or supporting role, those who won outlived those who lost–and performers who were never nominated–by an average of nearly 4 years, report Donald A. Redelmeier and Sheldon M. Singh, both of the Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Center in Toronto.

Factors related to success, such as hiring personal chefs and trainers, having more control over one’s career, and facing intense public scrutiny that discourages disgraceful behavior, may contribute to the winners’ longevity, the researchers propose in the May 15 Annals of Internal Medicine.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.