What can Catholic nuns tell us
about living past 90?
September 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

In this remarkable study, three researchers from the University of Kentucky examined the handwritten autobiographical essays from 180 Catholic nuns. At the time the essays were written, the nuns were in their early twenties, on average just 22 years of age. Researchers examined the content of the essays, looking for the frequency with which the nuns used positive words, such as “very happy” or “eager,” when describing themselves and their lives. The researchers then tracked down how long they lived.

The results of the study were striking. Nuns who frequently used positive words when describing themselves tended to live longer than nuns who used fewer positive words. In fact, 90% of the nuns who had the most positive essays were still alive at age 85, whereas just 34% of nuns who had had the least positive essays were still alive. Not surprisingly, this difference became even greater as they reached their nineties.  At age 94, 54% of the most cheerful group was still alive opposed to just 11% of the less cheerful group.

And this is not an isolated finding. Researchers examining very, very large groups of people (N=6,856) have also found that positive emotions (and the absence of negative feelings) predict living longer, even after taking into account the health conditions and a variety of demographic variables, such as age, sex and education). 

Time to start making a change?

One of the best ways to increase the amount of enjoyment in your life is to increase the number of pleasurable activities you have. That sounds easy enough, and there is no shortage of pleasurable activities to choose from. Very often, the hard part is choosing one or two activities and just getting started.  

If you are not sure where to get started, check out our Big List of Pleasurable Activities. Find something simple, like a walk, that you might do most days. It could be just before you start your day or just after you finish your day. Then, on the weekend, pick one thing you can do that looks like it might be fun. If you can do it with a friend, or even some you know just a little, even better. Then you get the benefit of both the activity and of spending time with someone else. 

Not sure what to do? If you are not sure what to do try downloading our Big List of Enjoyable Activities that can help get you started.

Tip: Don’t decide if what you are thinking about is going to be fun until you do it. One of the biggest mistakes people make is deciding if something is going to be fun before they actually do it. So, take a risk, ignore your uncertainty add a pleasurable activity to your life. The research says there’s a good chance you might just live longer. 

And as always, make sure you don’t miss our next update. Please follow us on Instagram or Facebook with the links at the bottom of the page.  


Danner, D. D., Snowdon, D. A., & Friesen, W. V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the nun study. Journal of personality and social psychology80(5), 804–813.
Xu, J., & Roberts, R. E. (2010). The power of positive emotions: it’s a matter of life or death–subjective well-being and longevity over 28 years in a general population. Health psychology: official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association29(1), 9–19. https://doi-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.1037/a0016767

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