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Optimism and culture

Firstly, taking a cautious and negative view of life served an important evolutionary purpose.

When our early ancestors starting spreading out across the terrain, it paid to be wary and to consider all dangers - sabre-tooth tigers, venomous snakes and insects, weather, rivers in spate, delicious-looking, but deadly, fruits and berries. Then there were marauding tribes, vying for your territory, to be seen off. Quite simply, if you were too optimistic, you would tend to be wiped out early in life, one way or another. Those who were cautious and pessimistic would tend to be those who lived long enough to pass on their genes to the next  generation who, in turn, needed to be cautious. In short, our evolutionary inheritance has endowed us with a strong streak of pessimism which makes scan our horizons for risk and danger, dwelling on what goes wrong in life, while down-playing those things that go right.

Modern causes of pessimism include the increasing trend in western societies to seek someone else to blame, and even sue, when things go wrong. 'Victimology' leads to passivity, encouraging people to believe that they have no real role to play in their own personal development or recovery from set-back, illness, injury etc.

Psychology has also played its part in spreading a pessimistic outlook. The science's focus on mental illness has produced much valuable information, but at the price of neglecting the positive side of psychology until very recently. 

The motto of the modern media is 'if it bleeds, it leads'. News headlines focus on bad news, on murder and mayhem, crime and punishment, wars and rumours of wars. The stark fact is that there is strong demand in society for bad news, driven at least partly by our evolutionary inheritance outlined above. 

Optimism and hope are universally seen as important character strengths,. People from all sorts of societies and belief systems value the strength, vision and drive of optimists. 

And we've got a lot to be optimistic about. In these early years of the 21st Century, those of us who live in western societies have the world at our feet. Free healthcare, free education, the safety net of social security and state pensions, cheap travel, the pick of the best foods from around the world, equality of opportunity, myriad career paths, and legal frameworks to protect minorities. We?ve even seen the sharp decline of the threat of nuclear holocaust, an issue that overshadowed the second half of the 20th Century.

Despite these great advantages, pessimism and negativity are widespread among what some would say is the luckiest generation ever born in the west.  Why this paradox?

And it's not just individuals who are afflicted by pessimism, when whole nations, or even continents, are put on the psychiatrist's couch we find that some of them are pessimistic while others are optimistic. It seems that cultural, social and political influences within nations can influence the level of optimism or pessimism of their citizens, with the result that we can actually put countries, and even continents,  on the psychologists' couch.

In its 'International Voice of the People' survey, the polling organisation Gallup International asked 52,000 people in 60 countries around the world whether or not they thought 2006 would be 'better than 2005'. The responses reflected the views of more than 2 billion citizens. Africa emerged as the most optimistic continent with 57% of respondents looking forward to a good year, while at just over 30% a much more prosperous Europe was the most pessimistic.

In terms of individual countries Vietnam was the most optimistic nation on earth, a position it has held for the last three years, despite bird flu and widespread poverty. The Chinese were the next most optimistic nation, despite a total lack of democracy and a creaking infrastructure. In both of those countries, some 75% were optimistic about what 2006 would bring. Kosovo, still under the administration of the UN, was third with 73%.

The most pessimistic nations were Serbia, Portugal and France, with only 47%, 46% and 43% respectively believing that 2006 offered better prospects than 2005. 

When it came to predicting whether the next generation will live in a less safe world, once Western Europeans had the gloomiest outlook with some 67% fearing the worst, while only 11% thought things would actually get better.  At 54%, the Americas were the next most pessimistic region. Startlingly, only 30% of those surveyed in the Middle East  thought that things would be worse for future generations. And within the Middle East, 77% of Afghanis believe that the worlds will be better for their children, while 61% of Iraqis feel the same. 

All Europeans are gloomy about the economy. Only 14% of Western Europeans feel that 2006 would being more prosperity than 2005, while 37% believe that it will be worse than 2005.

When asked whether 2006 would be a 'troubled year with much international discord', the Americas were the most pessimistic with 42% predicting international discord. Western Europe wasn't far behind with a 39% rating. Yet that was much more pessimistic than people living in the troubled Middle East, where the pessimism rating was a relatively low 28%. Africa was the most optimistic continent, with only 20% fearing the worst.

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