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Study Indicates People Universally Optimistic

It seems like there would be lots of reasons to be pessimistic: swine flu, a world economic crisis, global warming.

But it turns out people around the world are more optimistic than you might think, and research is revealing lots of positive things about optimism. For instance, students who have a positive outlook tend to have better grades, and doctors find that people with a sunnier disposition have an easier time dealing with and recovering from disease.

Optimism without borders

Now pollsters are finding that optimism is universal.

For the past few years, the Gallup organization has asked people around the world about their level of optimism. Every year, they query about a thousand people in each of 142 countries what they see happening in the next five years. This year, psychologist Matthew Gallagher from the University of Kansas helped them compile and analyse the data. He says they found optimism to be an almost universal quality.

"Almost universally, people expected their life in five years to be better than their current life and be better than life was five years ago," Gallagher says.

Ireland was the most optimistic country, while among the continents, Africa was the least optimistic.

Gallagher says overall, people were more optimistic than not. Even in countries where there were wars or economic problems or internal conflict, people were still more optimistic than pessimistic.

"We expected to find it [optimism] in most countries, but we didn't expect that even in countries in Africa that were dealing with war, in a lot of countries that are financially unstable, even there, optimism would be pretty strong," he says.

Wealth doesn't lead to greater happiness

And it turns out that money doesn't buy happiness, although Gallagher and the pollsters found that having enough for the basics did provide people with some peace of mind.

"It appears to be most important when you are at the lowest level," Gallagher says. "And so, when you are dealing with poverty and you can't afford basic food, basic shelter, things like that, money is important. As you get more and more and you get more stable, it appears that the effect of money quickly diminishes.

"And that it doesn't matter as much if you can buy a new flat-screen TV. That doesn't help out your happiness. It's, can you buy food and security for your family? That's when money matters."

Gallagher says optimism is an important psychological coping mechanism. Having faith in the future allows people to successfully face hardships, whether they be external, like economic downturns, or internal crises, such as a fatal illness.

He presented his data at a meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco, and Gallagher is optimistic that the results will be published soon.