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Happiness, Alzheimer's and living longer - the famous Nun Study

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The "Nun Study" as it's often known is one of the most famous positive psychology research projects. In short, it explores the links between positive expression of emotions and/or happiness and longevity and Alzheimer's Disease. Basically, it found that...

...apositive outlook on life and happiness may not only help you live longer and prevent you from having a disease, but if you do have the disease you may not be as affected by it as your less optimistic and less cheerful counterparts.

If you'd like to read a more thorough but very readable summary of this research then keep going...

By Daniel Tomasulo for PsychCentral

Can you imagine being asked to be part of a study where the researcher asks if you not only would be willing to take part, but would mind terribly donating your brain to be dissected after you’re gone?

That is exactly what was asked of the nuns participating. Of the 678 sisters in the original study about four dozen are still living. But researchers already have begun analyzing the more than 500 brains saved to dissect and study.

The nun study is one of the most dynamic and powerful studies on the impact of positive emotions and thoughts in the history of positive psychology. Researchers Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen (2001) from the University of Kentucky sampled the nuns, perfect subjects for a study because of the profound similarities around their physical health. They have similar, regularized diets, live together in similar surroundings, do not have children, and do not smoke or drink to excess. In other words, their physical backgrounds and conditions are about as controlled for as any group of human beings might be.

Four features formed the study’s foundation.

Initially, it was predicated by other findings which demonstrated that negative emotions suppress the immune system and increase the risk of infections and disease. It was also known that positive emotions would have the opposite effect.

Because temperament seems to have great consistency over the lifespan, the nun study looked at the degree to which a positive or negative approach to life would affect lifelong physical health. Since the nuns’ living conditions, histories and environmental factors were “controlled” by their life choice, the impact of their emotional disposition would help determine their longevity.

Temperament also determines people’s capacity for coping with stress and life challenges. Those with positive outlooks manage better. Positive attitudes not only provide a type of inoculation to immune system insults, but continuing defenses against the effects of life stressors.

Finally, research prior to the nun study had shown that people who write about their emotions articulate and demonstrate their emotional outlook.

The researchers hypothesized that analyzing autobiographies the nuns had written as young women would reveal their emotional temperament and the basic aspects of their outlook. A second hypothesis involved whether a positive versus a negative expression could predict the nuns’ health and longevity.

Read the full and original story HERE


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