We investigate the close connection between metastability of the reversible diffusion process X defined by the stochastic differential equation
d Xt = −∇ F (Xt ) d t + √2ε d Wt , ε > 0,
and the spectrum near zero of its generator −Lɛ≡ɛΔ−∇F⋅∇, where F:ℝd→ℝ and W denotes Brownian motion on ℝd. For generic F to each local minimum of F there corresponds a metastable state. We prove that the distribution of its rescaled relaxation time converges to the exponential distribution as ɛ↓0 with optimal and uniform error estimates. Each metastable state can be viewed as an eigenstate of Lɛ with eigenvalue which converges to zero exponentially fast in 1/ɛ. Modulo errors of exponentially small order in 1/ɛ this eigenvalue is given as the inverse of the expected metastable relaxation time. The eigenstate is highly concentrated in the basin of attraction of the corresponding trap.