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Why We're So Pessimistic: Read An Excerpt from Upside
The optimism gap also shows itself with specific issues. Since the early 1970s, the General Social Survey has asked Americans if their financial situation over recent years is getting better, worse, or staying about the same. Similarly, various national surveys have asked the same question about the national economy. Figure 1.4 plots the percentage of Americans who think that their own finances are getting better versus those who think the same about the economy. In every year but one, between 30% and 45% of respondents reported improvement in their own financial situation. In contrast, in most years, only 5% to 25% said the same about the national economy.
The crime rate also reveals an optimism gap. A 2007 Gallup poll asked respondents about the severity of crime nationwide compared to their local community. Over half, 57%, viewed crime nationwide as an "extremely" or "very" serious problem, but only 15% said the same about crime in their own community. So not only is the grass browner on the other side of the fence, but a lot of bullets are flying around there too.
Similar optimism gaps have been found with the environment, education, governmental officials, moral standards, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and health care. This led Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Lou Harris & Associates survey organization, to summarize people's views on life as follows: "It is as though there are two different countries, the one people know personally, which they are happy with, and the one they see on television and read about in the newspapers, which they think is in bad shape."
Once you start paying attention to it, you'll be surprised at how often you witness this optimism gap in everyday life. For example, earlier this year I was asked to record my first book, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . And Other Lies You've Been Told, as an audio book. I spent several days at a recording studio and got to know the two young guys who owned it. At one point one of them asked me about my next book. When I told him that it examines whether the world is getting better or worse, he laughed and responded, "What could possibly be getting better?" He said this despite the fact that though only in his late twenties, he owns a successful business, drives a Mercedes, is happily married with a child on the way, and seems to be doing pretty well all around. How can he think the world is spiraling downward when his own life is going so well? The optimism gap.
Why does the optimism gap exist? Americans generally have positive views toward their own lives. We value self-esteem, and we display higher levels of it than citizens of other countries, such as China and Japan, who are raised to be more humble and self-effacing. Also, we might give less attention to local problems that affect us personally because they might be too frightening, whereas catching up on bad news someplace else in the world can take on a more recreational form.
This book closes the optimism gap by providing a more accurate-and in many cases more positive-view of what's going on in the world. It occurs to me, however, that another way to close this gap would be to write a book convincing you that your life is worse than you realize. Chapter 1: "Your family: They don't like you either." Chapter 2: "The nice stuff you own: Somebody is going to take it." But I think I'll stick with my original plan.
The Past and Future