What are the Benefits of Looking on the Bright Side?

The Life and Times of Optimism in America

  • Sociology

Principal Investigators

Philippa Clarke
Research Associate Professor, Institute for Social Research
University of Michigan
Research Team Members
Sarah A. Burgard
University of Michigan
Michael Elliot
University of Michigan School of Public Health
Nancy Ambrose Gallagher
University of Michigan School of Nursing
Miles Spencer Kimball
University of Michigan
William Magee
University of Toronto
Marilyn Sinkewicz
University of Michigan School of Social Work
Jacqui Smith
University of Michigan


Optimism is typically considered to be a fairly stable trait with positive consequences for health and life chances over adulthood. However a sociological approach suggests that optimism is socially constructed, exhibiting variability over adulthood as a result of stressful life events, poverty, widowhood, physical health declines, as well as the residential environments in which we live our daily lives.

Using 25 years of nationally representative data gathered prospectively on Americans across the full adult life course, we will conduct an integrated series of analyses that examine the social and economic antecedents of optimism (and hopelessness) and their consequences for health and mortality in mid to late life.

We will examine three key research questions: i) describing the social patterning of optimism and hopelessness in American adults in mid to late life, including differences by age, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, and residential environment; ii) identifying the factors in early adulthood (age 25-39) that are associated with greater optimism or hopelessness after age 40, including the social, economic, familial, health, religious, and environmental factors in early adulthood that are related to higher levels of optimism and hopelessness at age 40 and over; and iii) determining whether higher levels of optimism/hopelessness reduce/increase the risk of mid to late life mortality, and investigating whether the mental health consequences of adverse mid to late life social and economic shocks are attenuated/exacerbated in those with higher levels of optimism/hopelessness.

We bring a dynamic interdisciplinary research team to this project, with established scholars who have spent considerable time thinking about positive traits/outlooks and their health, social and economic consequences. Our team includes researchers in public health, sociology, economics, psychology, nursing and biostatistics.

This will be the first study to examine the antecedents and consequences of optimism over such a long period using nationally representative data. Also, as far as we are aware this is the only study measuring both optimism and hope (as captured by its absence: hopelessness) in the same dataset collected prospectively on the same individuals over time.