Exhibiting optimism is our choice. It is healthier; expressing positive emotions extends our lives. The groundbreaking Nun Study by researchers at the University of Kentucky and numerous follow-on studies by researchers at Harvard and other institutions have documented that people who exhibit optimism, happiness, and other positive character attributes live longer and have less heart disease, depression, and a host of other ailments.
The Nun Study started in the 1980s by tracking a group of nuns who belonged to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The study, which is still ongoing and has since spread to other participants, tracks many personal and physical attributes and how they impact aging.
Becoming a nun is a big commitment and those nuns who joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the1930s and 1940s were, I imagine, like volunteers seeking to help society—but giving 100 percent commitment of their time, talent, and treasure. The ’30s and ’40s were no cakewalk of prosperity and peace. World War I had ended but the Great Depression was rampant, and, not unlike Trump or Putin today, Hitler was stirring up racism and nationalism and vilifying people based on sex, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
The young nuns were asked to write an autobiography. These autobiographies were later analyzed by the Nun Study for negative, neutral, and positive phrases and words to establish if the nuns' attitudes were optimistic and positive. The study provides concrete evidence that our attitude influences our life. It has become a first read in many positive psychology classes, supporting the premise that happy, optimistic, hopeful disposition leads to longevity, better relationships, health, and a host of measurable benefits.
A positive attitude leads to engagement and a feeling of agency—a belief that our efforts can make a difference. I would add that such a disposition leads us to being action heroes like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Malala, Zelensky, Marianne Williamson, and others.
I have been immersed in spirituality and religion my whole life. I met a few “repent or go to hell,” fear mongering evangelical Christians, Muslims, and Jews along the way. Listening to the frown-lined devotee who is keen to save my soul, I ask: “Are you happy?” I pause for their answer. I then ask: “Are you saved, or content that your life is reflective of Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, or whoever guides your worship?”
I then listen and simply say, “Seems if I had a personal relationship with God, was feeling guided by God’s presence, and had faith, I would be so happy, optimistic, and joyful that I would hardly be able to contain myself. I certainly would not be running around judging people and tearing down those God created in God’s image.”
I bring this up because today it seems that society is at a crossroads. t can seem that one way leads to hell, and the other road leads to hell, too. To those who feel this way, I say, “Perhaps.” There is an ancient African story that goes something like this. A farmer’s horse disappears. The neighbors say, “Such bad luck.” The farmer says, “Perhaps.” The horse returns with two mares. The neighbors say, “Such good luck.” The farmer says, “Perhaps.” The farmer’s son tries to ride one of the new horses. He falls and breaks his leg. The neighbors say, “Such bad luck.” The farmer says, “Perhaps.” The next day the local chief comes to pull together all able-bodied men to go to war. The son cannot go because of his injury. The neighbors say, “Such good luck.” The farmer says, “Perhaps.”
I tell that story to my beginning Vipassana meditation groups, explaining that the goal of mindfulness Vipassana meditation, or simple contemplative prayer, is a quiet mind that gets beyond judgment and quits labeling everything in our life is good-bad-neutral. Just seeing life and life’s events as they are and then deciding how to respond to them with mindfulness and calm. Our response to an event—and not how we label it—is what we must focus on.
Many years ago, I was chatting about suffering, indifference, and the melancholic epidemic of the time with one of my teachers as we drove through France towards Switzerland. Slowing down, he took his eyes off the road and looked me in the eyes to make sure I was listening. As my mind rushed to thoughts of road rash, fire, and car and body parts strewn across the road from a crash, he smiled at me and said, “Paul. Suffering exists so we have something to do.” He then sped back up and left me to my thoughts.
When I think of people like Zelensky, Malala, and others who could justify shriveling up from the hand they were dealt, I realize that, actually, suffering can be our call to optimism, to act, to hope, and to work for a world where every person goes to bed feeling safe, happy, loved, full, connected, and optimistic about tomorrow.
Read on to learn more about the antidote to suffering.