Optimism May Have Its Detractors, But It’s Still The American Norm

In retrospectives last week on Ronald Reagan, “optimism” was written so often that efficient journalists must have had the word on a save-get key. One might infer from this that Reagan’s optimism was out of the ordinary. Instead, a new Harris Poll makes it clear that personal optimism is more the rule than the exception in the U.S. Despite ample reason for gloom, there was even an uptick this year in optimism. People were asked, “In the course of the next five years, do you expect your personal situation to improve, to stay about the same or to get worse?” Sixty-eight percent said they expect life to improve for them; 6 percent expect it to get worse. Last year’s split was 63 percent “improve” vs. 8 percent “get worse.” (Most of the rest expect life to stay about the same.)

Do people think life must improve because it’s unsustainably awful now? Hardly. Asked to rate their lives at present, 59 percent said they’re “very satisfied” and 33 percent said they’re “fairly satisfied.” Fewer than one in 10 were either “not very satisfied” (6 percent) or “not at all satisfied” (2 percent). Cynics will say Americans are deluding themselves when they say life will get better. Actually, though, many respondents based their predictions (correct or otherwise) on past experience. Comparing their current situation to that of five years ago, 56 percent said it has improved; 27 percent said it has stayed about the same, and just 16 percent said it has worsened.

Some readers will be surprised to learn that so many Americans are optimistic. Perhaps that’s because the prestige of optimism has declined in opinion-making circles. An optimist now lays himself open to suspicion that he doesn’t quite have the intellect needed to face grim reality. (The optimism motif dominated commentary on Reagan in part because it was handy for people who scorned him but felt obliged to be polite.) One gets an indirect hint of this from a breakdown of the Harris data by level of education. Since highly educated Americans tend to live better than others by most standard indices of personal well-being, one would expect them to be more optimistic about their lives in the years ahead. Instead, respondents with post-graduate degrees were no more upbeat (and in many cases less so) than their less-educated compatriots. Sixty-eight percent of the post-graduate cohort said they expect their lives to improve during the next five years. That put them just marginally ahead of people with a high school education or less (66 percent). And the eggheads were less likely to express such optimism than the “some college” respondents (71 percent) and those with just an undergraduate degree (69 percent).