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Optimism

Why Americans See a Gloomy Future, but Others Don't

Should you be worried about the country’s future?

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Looking into the future
Source: Arnesh Yadram / Pexels

Although Americans are optimistic about their personal future, they are pessimistic where their country’s future is concerned. This paradox may not be shared by people in other cultures.

A Bright Future for Me

Human beings have the fascinating capacity to mentally travel forward in time to pre-experience the future. We can imagine the fine details of our future wedding, the excitement of having our first child, rewarding collaborations with our future co-workers, fun trips with our future spouse, and even winning a lottery. We are optimistic about our future. In fact, researchers find that when people are asked to imagine events to happen in their future, they show a positivity bias: They imagine overwhelmingly positive events, and they find it difficult to think of negative future events.

What’s more, this optimism about our personal future turns out to be important for our psychological well-being. People who imagine more positive events in their future are also happier and more satisfied with their lives. The future optimism is attenuated or absent among people with emotional disorders such as depression.

The Gloomy Future for My Country

Surprisingly, we become pessimistic when we think of our country’s future. Studies find that Americans imagine predominantly negative events in their country’s future, both short term, like next week or next year, and long term, like in 5 or 10 years. This is consistent across different demographics and political affiliations. Similar findings are also observed among Canadians as well as Europeans (e.g., Dutch), leading researchers to believe that people have a negativity bias toward their countries' futures. Importantly, this pessimism negatively impacts psychological well-being, particularly among young adults for whom the country’s future matters greatly.

However, studies outside of the North American and European populations suggest that the negativity bias about things to happen in one’s country’s future is not universal. For example, unlike Americans who imagine more negative than positive future events for their country and more positive than negative future events for themselves, Chinese imagine similar numbers of positive and negative events for both their own and their country’s futures.

Moreover, Chinese imagine a brighter future for their country — both short term and long term — than do Americans: Whereas Chinese often imagine events related to economic growth, technological breakthrough, and national celebrations, Americans are often worried about social-political issues, financial crises, and climate change.

Why the Cultural Differences?

Several factors contribute to these cultural differences. One is how much people consider their country to be an important part of their identity (e.g., “My country is an important reflection of who I am”): Chinese report identifying with their country more than do Americans; and the more that people identify with their country, the more positive they feel about their country’s future.

Another factor is how people perceive the well-being of their country in the present day (e.g., “Everyone is satisfied with the way things are in our country”): Chinese view their country as doing better right now than do Americans; and the better people believe their country is currently doing, the more positive they feel about its future.

Interestingly, these research findings, based on data collected in mid 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, are consistent with the “What Worries the World” survey report from the similar period. In April 2020, only 1% of Chinese respondents but 59% of US respondents thought that things in their country were off on the wrong track. According to the latest “What Worries the World” survey report, as of January 2024, 69% of US respondents think that things in their country are off on the wrong track. The responses vary markedly across the participating countries.

In Closing

A pessimistic view of one’s country’s future can create worries about one’s own future and in turn impact one’s life satisfaction and well-being. On the bright side, this pessimism is not universal, nor is it fixed. Instead, it reflects how important people feel about being a member of their country, whether they think things in their country are heading in the right or wrong direction, and possibly the influence of other factors such as news coverage (negative news may contribute to negative perceptions of the county’s current and future conditions) and cultural values (collectivism may facilitate positive views of one’s country).

Researchers as well as policymakers need to find ways to address these factors and promote optimism about our collective future.

References

Deng, W., Rosenblatt, A.K., Talhelm, T., Putnam, A. L. (2023). People from the U.S. and China think about their personal and collective future differently. Memory & Cognition, 51(3), 87–100.

Mert, N., Hou, Y., Wang, Q. (2022). What lies ahead of us? Collective future thinking in Turkish, Chinese, and Americans. Memory & Cognition.

Mert, N., & Wang, Q. (2023). Valence and perceived control in personal and collective future thinking: The relation to psychological well-being. Cognition & Emotion.

Shrikanth, S., Szpunar, P. M., & Szpunar, K. K. (2018). Staying positive in a dystopian future: A novel dissociation between personal and collective cognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147, 1200–1210.

Yamashiro, J. K., & Roediger, H. L., Ⅲ (2019). How we have fallen: Implicit trajectories in collective temporal thought. Memory, 27(8), 1158–1166.

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