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Are We Optimistic?
Apr 4th, 2011
Posted by Ethics Newsline, a weekly digest of worldwide ethics issues.
by Rushworth M. Kidder

Years ago, I asked Norman Cousins, the celebrated editor of the Saturday Review magazine, whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. “I really don’t know enough to be a pessimist,” he quipped before adding more seriously, “I’m optimistic about the intangibles that could be converted into assets.”

To a foreigner’s eye, Cousins was your standard-issue, stereotypical American. Ask Europeans to describe the American mind, and optimism regularly appears as a salient trait — sometimes derisively, when it stands for quick fixes and enthusiastic superficiality, but often appreciatively, when it characterizes an upbeat, confident, can-do attitude. Either way, optimism stands for a conviction that progress is expected and that tomorrow will improve on today.

In the years since my conversation with Cousins in the mid-1980s, U.S. optimism has been challenged seriously — particularly in the last decade. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 shattered the “can’t happen here” mantra about national defense, just as the 2003 SARS epidemic reminded us that disease knows no boundaries. The economy made an extremely hard landing during the recession of 2008-2009 and has yet to bounce back. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 put on display vulnerabilities we never knew we had, compounding the misery visited upon Louisiana and Mississippi by hurricane Katrina five years earlier. When you factor in the strain of fighting two overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with a third perhaps emerging in Libya), you can explain why optimism should be in shambles.

Should be, but isn’t. That’s what’s so intriguing about a Gallup survey released last week. Ask Americans to rate their current lives as well as their lives as they foresee them in five years, and they consistently give more positive ratings to the future than to the present.

The survey was large enough (352,840 adults), recent enough (January to December, 2010), and broad enough (all 50 states and the District of Columbia) to allow state-by-state comparisons. Result: Both over time and in every state, say Gallup’s researchers, “people in various situations — good and bad — tend to express optimism that things will improve in the future.”

But is that optimism really present in places like West Virginia and Kentucky, where other Gallup surveys show a very low sense of general well-being? Yes indeed. What about in places like Louisiana and Mississippi, which have endured crushing disasters recently? Yes indeed. In places where underemployment is high (like Hawaii), employers aren’t hiring (like Arkansas), and economic confidence is below average (like Wyoming)? Yes indeed. Despite all that, Americans generally remain both optimistic and happy.

Those two qualities, it appears, are related. Optimism is central to what global researchers are describing as “gross national happiness.” Seeking to measure that elusive quality, Gallup has developed a three-part scale running from “suffering” up through “struggling” and on into “thriving,” where the latter term suggests the greatest happiness. In international surveys measuring the percentage of those who are “thriving,” the United States tops other nations in the Americas (outranked only by Costa Rica, Canada, Panama, and Brazil), in Europe (below only Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland), in Asia and the Pacific (below only New Zealand, Australia, and Israel), and across Africa. On this scale, even West Virginia, the lowest ranking U.S. state, outperforms many developed nations, including Spain, France, and Greece.

To be sure, these are early days for this survey methodology. Researchers remain at a loss to find patterns to explain some of the data. But then, these are highly subjective measures, colored so deeply by national characteristics and historical expectations that anomalies are bound to appear — like, for instance, the patent oddity that Hungary, Lithuania, and Portugal all report much higher percentages of “suffering” than Chad, Ivory Coast, and Sudan.

Still, Gallup is onto something significant. This work points to some underlying facts — perhaps even a settled moral conviction — that can’t readily be dismissed. These findings no doubt will gall the cynics, who will be desperate to reinterpret them. Optimism and happiness, they will say, are proof of our culpable inanity and our inability to pay attention to circumstances. These characteristics, they’ll assert, confirm that, like Cousins, we simply don’t know enough to be pessimistic — or that we’re in a state of gross national denial.

Such cynicism may have meteoric brilliance among some politicians and talk-show hosts, but my suspicion is that it will burn out in the face of the nation’s deep-seated moral fundamentals. By asking two simple questions around the world — Where do “you personally feel you stand at this time” on a ladder stretching from the “worst possible life for you” to the “best possible life for you?” and Where do you feel you’ll stand “about five years from now?” — Gallup has probed levels of moral certitude that Cousins could hint at but never measure.

“States that are able to rise above difficult economic circumstances to instill a sense of positivity and optimism among their residents,” say Gallup researchers, “set a powerful example for other states to follow.” While that conclusion references the 50 U.S. states, it rings equally true for the world’s nation-states. In a bad-news world, that’s a potent example to set.

©2011 Institute for Global Ethics

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