“It’s actually not that people are inherently optimistic or pessimistic; we’re wired for both,” says Dr. Edward C. Chang, a clinical psychologist who runs the Perfectionism and Optimism-Pessimism Lab at the University of Michigan. “It’s a dual process mechanism, the sort of daily meditation that helps people regulate their expectations. It’s this psychological process that keeps people from becoming so optimistic they’re like Mr. Magoo, or so pessimistic they fall into a pit of despair. The two compliment each other; whether you’re more or less optimistic or pessimistic is heavily dependent on the culture you live in, the culture that shapes your values.”
Studies suggest broad cross-cultural differences with respect to optimism. Some researchers, including Chang, have suggested that Western cultures may promote independent notions of the self more than Eastern cultures that stress interdependence. Even if that is accurate, though, it would not explain what distinguishes the U.S. in particular from other Western nations. If individualism is all it takes to make an optimistic culture, why aren’t the Germans and French as exuberant as Americans? It may be that Americans take Western individualism to a different level than their European counterparts. While individualism runs deep in European civil society, it’s a patriotic norm in the United States, a matter of national identity and an sacrosanct mantra of living as a red-blooded American: work hard, play fair, and look on the bright side.
“When you think about American culture broadly, it centers entirely on the independent self and the happiness of the self, and not just in a general way,” Chang explains. “It’s ingrained in the culture as an explicit, essential value — we’re hit over the head with American freedom and liberty and rugged individualism so much so that explicit pessimism isn’t actually tolerated that much in our society. It’s treated as a mental illness, a sign of depression.”
Data from both Pew and the World Values Survey suggest that the centrality of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in American life actually does translate into positive views of self and perceptions of personal control that are correlates of psychological optimism. When asked if “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” Americans disagreed far more than citizens in other advanced economies surveyed.
As Harvard researcher Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn argues in the Journal of Happiness, Americans maximize their happiness by working and Europeans do so through leisure. "Americans may work more because they believe more than Europeans do that hard work brings success,” writes Okulics-Kozaryn.
And consider “positive views of self.” According to Pew, more Americans agree that “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to other” than do citizens of other Western countries, including Spain, Germany and the UK: