Having a background in behavioral research, I’ve always been intrigued by a study of 180 Catholic nuns in 2001.
The researchers at the University of Kentucky analyzed the nuns’ autobiographies dating between 1931 and 1943. Each was handwritten upon entry to a convent, describing the postulant’s life and call. Their average age: 22.
From a research perspective, nuns are, much like monozygotic twins, an ideal population for studying health. Their cloistered lifestyles create built-in similarities that control for many factors affecting longevity: near-identical routines, dietary and exercise habits, access to equivalent medical care and a lifetime vow of chastity. Saintly subjects.
The purpose was to see how differences in positivity affected wellness and life expectancy. The researchers codified those autobiographies, counting positive, neutral and negative words and sentences, grouping the nuns into four categories ranging from most cheerful to least.
Samples from the original study:
Sister One (low positive emotion):
I was born on September 26, 1909, the eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys … My candidate year was spent in the Motherhouse, teaching Chemistry and Second Year Latin at 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 Two (high positive emotion):
God started my life off well by bestowing upon me a grace of inestimable value … The past year which I have 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.”
Discovered was a stunning correlation between the postulants’ use of positive words in their early 20s and their future health and longevity nearly 60 years later. Indeed, by age 75, the quantitatively most cheerful group of nuns would outlive their least cheerful sisters by an average of 10 years.
Not only this, but the positive outlook seemed to inoculate these “happy nuns” from various diseases, notably dementia and Alzheimer’s, even when the disease was found, upon autopsy, to have been anatomically present.
But before we reach for our gratitude journals and mugs half-full of Mystic Monk coffee, is there more to consider? After all, researchers noted a “possible association” of written emotional expression to longevity, but chalked this up to “speculation.”
Perhaps, we must consider deeper; these devout women’s stories, I believe, informed and revealed their authors’ paradigms of God.
A life “for the spread of religion,” wrote Sister One.
A “life of union with Love Divine,” wrote Sister Two.
My own hunch is that this study points beyond emotions to a depth of spirituality, revealing a positive correlation between intimacy and adoration toward a benevolent God of love, and one’s physical and emotional vitality.
Want a longer lease on life? The cheery nuns might demonstrate the health benefits of devotion over dogma, relationship over religiosity, well-wrinkled years spent, not so much for the spread of religion, but in “union with Love Divine.”
Long life to that!
Wendy Connelly is one of The Star’s 13 Faith Walkers.