Optimism Is Universal: Exploring the Presence and Benefits of Optimism in a Representative Sample of the World
by Gallagher, M. W., Lopez, S. J., & Pressman, S. D. (2013)
(Journal of Personality, 81(5). 429-440. DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12026)
Background & Research
Recent theories of and studies on optimism tend to agree that optimism is an adaptive psychological resource and provides overall benefits for individuals, rather than being a damaging delusion as was earlier thought by some philosophers and psychologists. While there are some indications that defensive pessimism may be adaptive and optimism maladaptive in some very specific circumstances, overall, numerous studies and meta-analyses have shown higher levels of optimism to be linked to improved psychological health, in particular subjective well-being, as well as subjective, and to a lesser extent objective, physical health.
However, as with so much psychological research, optimism and its effects have mainly been studied in industrialized, relatively wealthy nations. Are the results obtained in such studies then generalizable to the entire world? Is optimism a) widely present and b) adaptive in other parts of the world, where, e.g., economic outlooks may be more dire and life expectancy and other Quality of Life indicators are lower?
Previous research has arrived at conflicting results on whether optimism is a universal tendency, and to what extent cultural and demographic variables might affect it. Further, such research has often used “convenience samples”, e.g., exclusively student samples, and wealthier, industrialized countries have been over-represented. To overcome these limitations, in the study this article reports on, the goal was to broaden the scope of studying optimism and its effects to the entire planet. The aims were thus 1) to examine whether levels of optimism would be consistent worldwide, 2) to consider the effects of demographic variables, 3) to determine whether optimism would be associated with improved subjective well-being and perceived physical health, and 4) whether country characteristics would moderate these associations.
A very large sample (N = 150,048) from 142 countries representing 95 % of the world’s population was studied, the data obtained from the Gallup World Poll conducted in 2005.
Optimism was defined in terms of expectations of positive future outcomes. Cantril’s Self-Anchoring Striving Scale was used for measuring such expectations as well as evaluations of current life. In this scale, participants imagine a ladder from 0-10, where 0 represents the worst possible life for them, and 10 the best possible life for time, and evaluate where they stand now and where they think they will stand in five years. Psychological and physical well-being were evaluated with short series of simple questions on positive and negative affect experienced during the previous day and on satisfaction with physical health.
Results & Discussion
Overall, 87.7% of the variability in individual levels of optimism was found to be due to differences between individuals and 12.3% of the variability due to differences between countries.
The worldwide mean response for the future ladder item was 6.70 (median = 7, mode = 8, SD = 2.32). 84.0% of individuals expected their life in five years to be at the midpoint of the scale (5) or above.
The highest mean expectations were reported in Ireland (M = 8.44), Brazil (M = 8.34), Denmark (M = 8.32), New Zealand (M = 8.31), and the United States (M = 8.18), while the lowest mean expectations
were found in Zimbabwe (M = 4.59), Egypt (M = 5.10), Haiti (M = 5.11), Bulgaria (M = 5.13), and Lebanon (M = 5.30).
As regards the effects of demographic variables, the results indicated that age (B = -.0295, SE = .0014, p < .001), gender (B = .1348, SE = .0209, p < .001), education (B = .1232, SE = .0336, p < .001), and household income (B = .1211, SE = .0070, p < .001) all had significant effects on optimism. Out of these variables, age was the strongest predictor of optimism, with younger individuals reporting greater optimism. In sum, young, female, highly educated, and affluent individuals were found to be the most optimistic individuals on average worldwide. The effects of these variables were modest, however, accounting for just 11.47 % of the variance in levels of optimism put together.
Looking at the associations between optimism and well-being, at the country level, there were moderate to large associations between optimism and positive affect (r = .49), negative affect (r = -.36), and life satisfaction (r = .74). At the individual level, the associations between optimism and positive affect (r = .23), negative affect (r = -.18), and life satisfaction (r = .64) were smaller.
Further, hierarchical linear modelling analysis indicated that optimism had a statistically significant association with positive affect, negative affect and life satisfaction. Optimism had the strongest relationship with life satisfaction and a more robust association with positive than with negative affect, suggesting that it may have a stronger influence on the positive aspects of subjective well-being. However, the authors state that the association between optimism and life satisfaction may be overemphasized due to the similar ladder questions used to measure them.
The associations between optimism and subjective well-being declined but remained statistically significant after including all of the demographic variables as covariates. An examination of random effects showed that the relationship between optimism and positive affect was consistent across the world, while the strength of the association between optimism on the one hand and negative affect and life satisfaction on the other varied between countries. A statistically significant association between optimism and perceived physical health was also found, and this association, too, varied between countries. Looking at country characteristics potentially explaining this variance, no evidence was found that GDP or life expectancy moderated the links between optimism and negative affect, life satisfaction, or perceived health.
Worldwide variations in optimism were also examined by comparing expectations for the future with current ratings of life satisfaction, i.e., by employing the difference between ratings on future and current ladder items on the Cantril Scale. At the individual level, the average difference score was 1.34 (SD = 1.90; median = 1.0; mode = 1.0). Worldwide, 10.9% of individuals expected their life in 5 years to be worse than currently, 19.6% expected it to be as good as currently, and 69.5% expected their life to be better than currently. In 120 of the 142 countries surveyed, over 50% of the population expected their life in 5 years to be better than currently. In other words, most individuals worldwide were found to be optimistic when considering the relative differences between expectations for the future and current ratings of life satisfaction. HLM analysis with this indicator of optimism indicated optimism was a significant predictor of positive affect (B = .0057, SE = .0011, p < .0001) and perceived health (B = .0043, SE = .0009, p < .0001), but not of negative affect.
Summarizing the findings, the authors state that “individuals of all ages, races, education levels, and socioeconomic strata across the world are generally optimistic.” Further, “most individuals and countries worldwide not only have positive expectations for the future, but they also expect their life to improve in the future.” The effects of country of origin and the studied demographic variables on optimism was found to be relatively small. The study also provided clear evidence for a relationship between well-being and optimism worldwide, with the strongest links being found between optimism and positive affect and life satisfaction. There was also indication that the association between higher optimism and improved perceived health may be universal.
Possible limitations of the study include the use of one-item responses as measures of optimism, the possibility of anchoring bias due to the two consecutive ladder items used, different survey methods (e.g., telephone vs. face-to-face) used in different countries, and the cross-sectional nature of the data.
The authors consider one of the most interesting aspects of their findings to be the fact that while associations between optimism and positive affect were consistent, the association between optimism and negative affect, life satisfaction, and perceived health all varied significantly between countries. There was no evidence that GDP or life expectancy might moderate the associations between optimism and the outcomes examined. The authors speculate based on previous research that some other cultural or country characteristics could be found in future studies that may influence the degree to which optimism relates to improved psychological functioning.
In conclusion, the study provides compelling evidence that “optimism is a universal phenomenon, that optimism is associated with improved perceptions of physical health worldwide, and that optimism is associated with improved subjective well-being worldwide”. It thus appears that optimism is not just a product of living in a wealthy, industrialized nations but a more universal, beneficial characteristic of humanity.
The limitations inherent in arriving at conclusions about human psychology based on research conducted exclusively in industrialized, often “Western”, countries have become more and more clear. A lot of the fundamental research carried out in psychology has been based on samples from such limited populations, and often even from subsets of the population such as students. Clearly, this has great implications for generalizability. As such, studies such as this drawing on large, global samples are invaluable for determining the applicability of and variations in our fundamental concepts in psychology.
This study was of course simple in its design, probably due to the limitations of its questions being included in a larger gallup poll with many items. In any case, its results are important and, from a humanistic perspective, comforting. Even in populations under great duress, most people are able to maintain optimistic views of the future, and these optimistic views in turn appear to be universally linked to greater well-being. Most people in the world also think their life in the future (in this case, in five years) will be closer to the best possible life than to the worst possible one. Optimism and hope appear universal and universally helpful.
It is interesting to ponder if optimism about the future might “work” differently in situations where it is, looking at objective measures of well-being, realistic, versus situations where it is more of a strategy for maintaining mental well-being in the face of adversity or a coping mechanism. In this sense, extensions of this research would indeed be called for, especially in terms of what explains the observed differences in the links between optimism and negative affect, life satisfaction and perceived physical health. Even this same data could probably be further analyzed, as surely other country characteristics, beyond GDP and life expectancy, and demographic variables are available.