You don't have to be a Monty Python fan to whistle along with Eric Idle as he croons "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" while contemplating death on a cross.
British satire aside, focusing on the upside of life could easily be the theme song for research focusing on a key component of longevity: optimism.
Optimism doesn't mean ignoring life's stressors. But when negative things happen, optimistic people are less likely to blame themselves and more likely to see the obstacle as temporary or even positive. They also believe they have control over their fate and can create opportunities for good things to happen in the future.
A new study published Monday finds men and women with the highest levels of optimism had an 11% to 15% longer life span on average than those who practiced little positive thinking. The highest-scoring optimists also had the greatest odds of living to age 85 or beyond.
The results held true, the study found, even when socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, smoking, social engagement, poor diet and alcohol use were considered.
"This was the first study to look at the impact of optimism on exceptional longevity, which is defined as living to age 85 or more," said lead author Lewina Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University's School of Medicine. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study found women with the highest levels of optimism had 1.5 greater odds of living to 85 or beyond, compared to those with the lowest levels of optimism. Highly optimistic men had 1.7 greater odds of living to that age over the more pessimistic. Again, those relationships remained true even after adjusting for health behaviors.
How would an optimistic attitude help you live a much longer life?
"Optimistic individuals tend to have goals and the confidence to reach them," Lee said. "Those goals could include healthy habits that contribute to a longer life."
Prior research has found a direct link between optimism and healthier diet and exercise behaviors, as well as better cardiac health, a stronger immune system, better lung function, and lower mortality risk, among others.
"Optimism is one important psychological dimension that has emerged as showing some really interesting associations with health," said neuroscientist Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds.
"And I would add other positive attributes, such as mindfulness, compassion, kindness, and having a strong sense of purpose in life," Davidson added.