In 1932, Cecilia O’Payne took her final vows in Milwaukee. As a novice in the School Sisters of Notre Dame, she committed the rest of her life to the teaching of young children. Asked to write a short sketch of her life on this momentous occasion, she wrote:
God started my life off well by bestowing upon me grace of inestimable value…The past year which I spent as a candidate studying at Notre Dame 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.
In the same year, in the same city, and taking the same vows, Marguerite Donnelly wrote her autobiographical sketch:
I was born on September 26, 1909, the eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys….My candidate year was spent in the mother-house, 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.
These two nuns, along with 178 of their sisters, thereby became subjects in the most remarkable study of happiness and longevity ever done.
Investigating how long people will live and understanding what conditions shorten and lengthen life is an enormously important but enormously knotty scientific problem. It is well documented, for example, that people from Utah live longer than people from the neighboring state of Nevada. But why? ….Too many insidious (as well as healthful) factors are confounded between Nevada and Utah for scientists to isolate the cause.
Unlike Nevadans or even Utahans, however, nuns lead routine and sheltered lives. They all eat roughly the same bland diet. They don’t smoke or drink. They have the same reproductive and marital histories. They don’t get sexually transmitted diseases. They are in the same economic and social class, and they have the same access to good medical care. So almost all the usual confounds are eliminated, yet there is still wide variation in how long nuns live and how healthy they are. Cecilia is still alive at age ninety-eight and has never been sick a day in her life. In contrast, Marguerite had a stroke at age fifty-nine, and died soon thereafter. We can be sure that their lifestyle, diet, and medical care were not the culprits. When the novitiate essays of all 180 nuns were carefully read, however, a very strong and surprising difference emerged. Looking back at what Cecilia and Marguerite wrote, can you spot it?
Sister Cecilia used the words “very happy” and “eager joy,” both expressions of effervescent good cheer. Sister Marguerite’s autobiography, in contrast, contained not even a whisper of positive emotion. When the amount of positive feeling was quantified by raters who did not know how long the nuns lived, it was discovered that 90 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age eighty-five versus only 34 percent of the least cheerful quarter.
Was it really the upbeat nature of their sketches that made the difference? Perhaps it was a difference in the degree of unhappiness expressed, or in how much they looked forward to the future, or how devout they were, or how intellectually complex the essays were. But research showed that none of these factors made a difference, only the amount of positive feeling expressed in the sketch. So it seems that a happy nun is a long-lived nun.
Why has evolution endowed us with positive feeling? What are the functions and consequences of these emotions, beyond making us feel good?
Everyone wants answers to these questions for their own lives, and it is natural to turn to the field of psychology for answers. So it may come as a surprise to you that psychology has badly neglected the positive side of life. For every one hundred journal articles on sadness, there is just one on happiness.
The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort, and ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of people who in the middle of great wealth are starving spiritually. Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die. The positive feeling that arises from the exercise of strengths and virtues, rather than from the shortcuts, is authentic.
The trait of optimism helps explain how a single snapshot of the momentary happiness of nuns could predict how long they will live. Optimistic people tend to interpret their troubles as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation. Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do, and are uncontrollable. Optimism is only one of two dozen strengths that bring about greater well-being.
We need a psychology of rising to the occasion, because that is the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of predicting human behavior. In the evolutionary struggle for winning a mate or surviving a predator’s attack, those of our ancestors who rose to the occasion passed on their genes; the losers did not. …This means that we all contain ancient strengths inside of us that we may not know about until we are truly challenged…
When you read about these strengths, you will also find that some are deeply characteristic of you, whereas others are not. I call the former your signature strengths, and one of my purposes is to distinguish these from strengths that are less a part of you. I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.