While the United States is the best in the world at some things (e.g., basketball, putting people in prison, and In-N-Out hamburgers), pessimism isn't one of them. In 2010, the Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed respondents in twenty-two different countries, asking them, "Overall, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in our country today?" As plotted in Figure 1.2, the United States is just middle-of-the-pack. In all but one of the nations queried, about half or more of citizens are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their countries, and in most countries two-thirds or more of citizens are dissatisfied. The most dissatisfied country was Lebanon. (National motto: "We don't want to be here either.") The most satisfied, far and away, was China. (National motto: "All 1.3 billion of us are doing quite well. Thank you for asking.") Only 9% of the Chinese were dissatisfied with their country's direction.

The Optimism Gap

At this point, you might be thinking that most humans (except the Chinese) are just pessimistic by nature, but this is not the case. We're actually quite optimistic about our own lives. This personal optimism sets up a paradox in that we think our own lives are going well, but we're convinced that almost everyone else is doing poorly. Basically, we are exceptions to the rule when it comes to life getting worse. Writer David Whitman labels this phenomenon the "optimism gap," and with it we tend to think that the grass is browner, not greener, in other people's yards. Psychologist Fathali Moghaddam characterizes this optimism gap as our thinking that the sky is falling, just not on us.

This optimism gap is demonstrated in a variety of studies. Survey researchers sometimes collect data using what they call the "ladder of life." This type of question asks respondents to rate some aspect of life on a 0-to-10 scale, with 0 representing the worst possible and 10 the best possible. Starting in 1959, the Gallup poll, and later the Pew Foundation, has used this tool to have Americans rate their own life situations as well as the United States as a whole. If the optimism gap did not exist, we would expect these two questions to yield similar results, but that is not the case. As shown in Figure 1.3, in 1959, Americans rated both their personal lives and the nation's condition at the same, relatively high level (6.6 and 6.7 out of 10, respectively). From then on, however, the scores started to diverge, and over the past forty-five years, Americans have consistently rated their own lives better than the nation as a whole. This difference exists both when times are bad, as with the low rating in the early 1970s, and when times are good, as in the mid-1990s. Most recently, in 2008, the average rating for one's own life was 6.8 while for the country it was 5.8. I suppose that I manifest this optimism gap myself. If I had to rate my own life, I would give it an 8, but I'd only give the nation as a whole a 7.

The optimism gap was also found in an intriguing historical study. In the 1980s, journalism professor Nicholas Lemann found an archive of photographs taken in the 1940s. He tracked down many of the people in those photographs and interviewed them. Almost to a person they reported that their lives had gotten better since the photographs were taken forty years prior, but the great majority of them thought that American life, as a whole, had gone downhill during that same period.