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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The International Pessimist Club Has Surprisingly Few Members

by Shane J. Lopez, Gallup Senior Scientist

Most people on the planet see the glass as half full, rather than half empty. That’s according to a new analysis that my colleagues, Matt Gallagher and Sarah Pressman, and I put together based on 2009 Gallup World Poll data from 142 countries.

We measured optimism using Gallup’s life evaluation question, based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving scale, which asks people to rate their lives now and five years from now on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 represents their best possible life.

Across all countries, residents rated their future lives an average of 6.70. And the vast majority (84%) of individuals rated their future life at the midpoint of the scale (5) or above.


Residents of Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United States had the highest average ratings of future expectations for their lives. Those in Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti, Bulgaria, and Lebanon had the lowest.

We looked to see how these future expectations jibed with present circumstance. About nine in 10 people on the planet see their lives in five years as being as good as or better than their current lives. A mere 11% are pessimistic -- meaning they see their future as being worse than the present.

Our analysis also suggests that the most optimistic people in the world may be young, economically secure, educated women in Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United States. Conversely, the most pessimistic people in the world may be old, poor, uneducated men in Zimbabwe. But the optimism effects of country of origin and demographic variables (with age as the strongest predictor) are smaller than we anticipated, suggesting that optimism is, to some extent, an equal-opportunity resource.

The wellbeing benefits of optimism are clear. It is strongly linked to numerous positive emotions and life satisfaction. Our findings also provide evidence that the benefits of optimism for perceived health may be universal as well.

Given that there is compelling evidence that optimism confers emotional and physical wellbeing benefits on most of us, the question then is: What can be done to capitalize on this universal psychological resource?

Here are our answers to this question:

Physicians and other healthcare professionals can turn optimism about the future into good health practices today. If a patient confesses to a dire outlook for the future, physicians are trained to put themselves on high alert for patient behaviors that might undermine health and wellbeing. But if someone talks about their positive outlook on the future, a physician may not pay much attention. Patient optimism is a health-giving force that could influence how people mind their wellbeing day to day. If healthcare providers were to highlight the benefits of optimism, patients might become more inclined to leverage it as a resource.

Teachers can tap into students’ excitement about the future. Children’s rosy view of the future rewards them with big ideas and boundless energy. Their excitement about the future and their school’s role in making their dreams a reality could wane without teachers who turn that optimism into hope. By tailoring lessons to students’ passions, education becomes more relevant and more meaningful in students’ eyes.

Policymakers give people more of what they need to make their coveted future a reality. When constructing government and nongovernment aid, policymakers should provide people with multiple pathways to their better future. Then, those choices should be followed with support and training as to how people can use that aid or asset most productively and sustainably over time.

Leaders from workplace managers to presidents or prime ministers can create a contagion of excitement about the future. A leader’s optimism can improve his or her followers’ outlook. This contagion can foster increased engagement and wellbeing.

No matter where you are in the world, making the most of this optimistic tendency is the job of any person who cares for and leads others. It is a natural resource that can improve all of our lives.

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