The American Ethic and the Spirit of Optimism
For centuries, visitors to the United States have been struck by the boundless optimism of its people. Recent research bears out the stereotype, confirming that Americans really are more hopeful about the future than their peers in other wealthy nations. But it also suggests that American optimism may now be waning in the face of contemporary political and economic challenges.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French observer of American life at the beginning of the 19th century, observed that the Americans of his day “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man ... They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.” Political and social observers have echoed this sentiment for centuries, enshrining optimism as an essential feature of not just the abstract ‘American Dream,’ but also of the social and economic institutions of American civil society.
“Anyone visiting America from Europe cannot fail to be struck by the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence in their country’s future that he or she will meet among ordinary Americans—a pleasing contrast to the world-weary cynicism of much of Europe,” observed Irish philosopher Charles Handy, who retraced de Tocqueville's trek across the country in 2001. “Most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.”
So why are Americans so optimistic? A growing number of psychologists and sociologists believe it’s the Western world’s distinct tradition of individualism—and Americans’ fervent embrace of it—that helps the U.S. respond to uncertainty and turmoil with an eye towards a brighter future.
“It’s actually not that people are inherently optimistic or pessimistic; we’re wired for both,” says Dr. Edward C. Chang, a clinical psychologist who runs the Perfectionism and Optimism-Pessimism Lab at the University of Michigan. “It’s a dual process mechanism, the sort of daily meditation that helps people regulate their expectations. It’s this psychological process that keeps people from becoming so optimistic they’re like Mr. Magoo, or so pessimistic they fall into a pit of despair. The two compliment each other; whether you’re more or less optimistic or pessimistic is heavily dependent on the culture you live in, the culture that shapes your values.”
Studies suggest broad cross-cultural differences with respect to optimism. Some researchers, including Chang, have suggested that Western cultures may promote independent notions of the self more than Eastern cultures that stress interdependence. Even if that is accurate, though, it would not explain what distinguishes the U.S. in particular from other Western nations. If individualism is all it takes to make an optimistic culture, why aren’t the Germans and French as exuberant as Americans? It may be that Americans take Western individualism to a different level than their European counterparts. While individualism runs deep in European civil society, it’s a patriotic norm in the United States, a matter of national identity and an sacrosanct mantra of living as a red-blooded American: work hard, play fair, and look on the bright side.
“When you think about American culture broadly, it centers entirely on the independent self and the happiness of the self, and not just in a general way,” Chang explains. “It’s ingrained in the culture as an explicit, essential value — we’re hit over the head with American freedom and liberty and rugged individualism so much so that explicit pessimism isn’t actually tolerated that much in our society. It’s treated as a mental illness, a sign of depression.”
Read the full article "The American Ethic and the Spirit of Optimism" at The Atlantic.