Hope really does spring eternal, according to a new study from Michigan State University. Well, hope at least springs most of the time. Researchers investigated the life stages and events that promote optimism most often in people. Somewhat surprisingly, the team at MSU discovered that people are optimistic for most of their lives – even in the face of bad luck, tragedies, and unfortunate circumstances.
“We found that optimism continued to increase throughout young adulthood, seemed to steadily plateau and then decline into older adulthood,” explains lead study author William Chopik, MSU assistant professor of psychology, in a university release. “Even people with fairly bad circumstances, who have had tough things happen in their lives, look to their futures and life ahead and felt optimistic.”
Researchers concluded that, regardless of specific negative or positive events, accidents, or developments in one’s life, people generally grow more and more optimistic starting at the age of 15 before hitting peak optimism around the age of 60 or 70.
This study certainly feels timely in light of the year 2020 has shaped up to be. It’s been a difficult year for everyone, but this research just goes to show that humans are a resilient bunch. We all have our eyes set on a much better 2021, and these findings bode well for a bounce-back year.
“Counterintuitively — and most surprising — we found that really hard things like deaths and divorce really didn’t change a person’s outlook to the future,” professor Chopik says. “This shows that a lot of people likely subscribe to the ‘life is short’ mantra and realize they should focus on things that make them happy and maintain emotional balance.”
The research team surveyed 75,000 people (Americans, Germans, Dutch) between the ages of 16 and 101 for this project. Each person’s optimism, and outlook and expectations for the future, was assessed. Major life events, both happy and sad, were taken note of as well. Examples of such events include marriage, divorce, loss of a loved one, starting a new job, major health changes, and retirement.
“There’s a massive stretch of life during which you keep consistently looking forward to things and the future,” professor Chopik adds. “Part of that has to do with experiencing success both in work and life. You find a job, you meet your significant other, you achieve your goals and so on. You become more autonomous and you are somewhat in control of your future; so, you tend to expect things to turn out well.”
Of course, as much as we all would love to find the fountain of youth at times, life doesn’t last forever. The study’s authors say the decline in optimism they observed among elderly individuals is likely due to the natural onset of age-related health issues and the realization that most of one’s life is behind them. All that being said, Chopik and his team wouldn’t go so far as to call the elderly pessimists.
“Retirement age is when people can stop working, have time to travel and to pursue their hobbies,” professor Chopik notes. “But very surprisingly, people didn’t really think that it would change the outlook of their lives for the better.”
Everyone has an occasional bad day when they’re feeling a bit more negative than usual. But, when push comes to shove we all want to believe that our futures will be filled with good times and good fortune. Even when awful or unlucky events inevitably happen, most people’s first reaction is to push through and overcome that hurdle.
“We oftentimes think that the really sad or tragic things that happen in life completely alter us as people, but that’s not really the case,” professor Chopik concludes. “You don’t fundamentally change as a result of terrible things; people diagnosed with an illness or those who go through another crisis still felt positive about the future and what life had ahead for them on the other side.”
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Research in Personality.