American optimism endures despite pandemic, recession, social injustices

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — We’re already known as the land of the free, but according to survey data spanning 12 years, “land of the optimistic” would be an apt nickname as well. Despite dealing with multiple national crises since 2008 — from a recession to a global viral pandemic to movements against social injustice — Americans still possess optimism about the future, according to a study.

Across multiple surveys spanning 2008-2020, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center report a remarkable consistency among U.S. residents’ beliefs that their own lives will be even better in five years than at the time of the survey. Study authors say their findings offer positive implications for the health of the nation.

“Prior literature shows that declines in hope are associated with worse health outcomes and sense of well-being,” says senior study author Brita Roy, assistant professor of medicine at Yale, in a statement. “People with a more optimistic orientation generally do better during an illness, adhere to better health behaviors, and exhibit better psychological health.”

Gauging optimism from a ‘ladder’ of life satisfaction

The research team analyzed data originally collected by the long-term Gallup National Health and the Well-Being Index, an online self-assessment tool put together by the Mayo Clinic. Encompassing 2.7 million Americans, the polls measured hope among respondents.

More specifically, survey respondents were asked to rank their current life satisfaction on a scale of one to 10 by imagining a ladder. The 10th step of the ladder represents a near-perfect life with high satisfaction, while the first rung represents high levels of life dissatisfaction. Then, subjects were asked to predict where on the ladder they expect to be five years in the future. The difference between the two rankings for each person was used to calculate sense of optimism or pessimism about the future.

Over that entire 12-year period, the data indicates the American people were remarkably optimistic and resilient even in the face of recent challenges such as an economic recession, ever-increasing levels of political polarization, and the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, during the “Great Recession” between 2008-2010 current satisfaction scores ranged between 6.79 and 6.97, and anticipated satisfaction five years into the future ranged between 7.56 to 7.74. Across all three of those years, hope measurements (the difference between the two “ladder rung” scores) remained exactly the same (.77).

Even polls conducted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic paint an optimistic picture of the future. Generally, while optimism levels recorded in 2020 showed a drop off in comparison to earlier years, Americans’ anticipated satisfaction level five years into the future remained steady at a relatively high measure of optimism (.92).

Looking to the future

The data used for this research was not beyond reproach. Researchers admit that by 2020 the number of responses from subjects had declined significantly. So, while the 2020 surveys offered enough data to roughly gauge the “national mood,” it did not offer enough information to accurately assess hope differences across various areas of the United States.

That being said, between 2008 and 2017 enough respondent data was collected to determine that one in seven U.S. counties saw their optimism levels decline. Another single county saw optimism increase, and the remaining five counties displayed consistent optimism levels.

According to Prof. Roy, understanding the specific fluctuations in hope for the future among Americans living in different areas of the country will be essential to developing community-based strategies aimed at improving health outcomes. For instance, are there any connections between local opioid use rates in a certain community/county/state and hope level changes over the years?

“That is where strategies to improve community engagement and socio-economic conditions might pay big health dividends,” Prof. Roy concludes.

The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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