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Optimism is universal, and so are the benefits, researcher says

Tue, 05/07/2013

LAWRENCE — The capacity for optimism is often thought to be a defining characteristic of the human species. As a result, the potential benefits of optimism have been a popular research topic in psychology, and there is now extensive research demonstrating that optimism is adaptive — i.e., it provides benefits — including improved well-being and physical health.

But most optimism research has taken place in industrialized nations, which leaves unanswered some big questions: Is optimism universal, or does it only exist in wealthy nations? Moreover, if optimism exists worldwide, is its link to improved well-being and physical health also universal?

According to University of Kansas researcher Shane Lopez, the answer to both questions is yes.

In a recent global study, Lopez finds that most individuals and most countries worldwide are optimistic. Additionally, the link between optimism and improved health and well-being is also universal. In other words: Optimism is universal, and so are the benefits.

“About 89 percent of people on the planet believe that their future will be as good or better than their present lives,” said Lopez, a professor of the practice in the KU School of Business. “A majority of people in every country surveyed, except for one, believe the glass is half-full. Additionally, the link between optimism and improved well-being and physical health that’s been observed in wealthier nations also exists in poorer nations.”

Lopez describes his research in an article titled “Optimism Is Universal: Exploring the Presence and Benefits of Optimism in a Representative Sample of the World.” The article appears in the latest edition of the Journal of Personality.

In his study, Lopez – along with colleagues Matt Gallagher from Boston University and Sarah Pressman from the University of California, Irvine – examines Gallup World Poll data from more than 150,000 individuals spanning 142 countries, representative of 95 percent of the world’s population. The survey includes questions on individuals’ expectations for the future, current evaluations of life satisfaction and whether they’d recently experienced various positive or negative emotions. Other questions were designed to measure respondents' perceived physical health. The relationships among optimism, subjective well-being and perceived health were then examined using hierarchical linear modeling.

“Up until now, it was reasonable to wonder if optimism was just a luxury that exists in wealthy, industrialized nations,” Lopez said. “But our results show this isn’t the case. Optimism exists in virtually every country we surveyed, as does the link between optimism and improved health and well-being.”

Interestingly, Lopez’ study shows that various individual-level demographics have little to no effect on optimism – a finding that may seem counterintuitive to some observers. For example, Lopez examines the individual-level demographics of age, gender, education and household income and finds their collective impact on optimism to be quite small.

“Individual-level demographics matter a little bit, but not much,” he said. “Collectively, the variables we examine account for only 11 percent of the variance in optimism.”

While Lopez finds that nearly all countries are generally optimistic, he also finds variation in optimism among countries and proposes two nation-level variables — per-capita GDP and life expectancy — as potential causes. But as was the case with the individual-level variables, his analysis concludes these nation-level variables have virtually no effect on optimism.

“It seems logical that a nation’s per-capita GDP and life expectancy would be linked to the population’s optimism, but we find this isn’t the case,” he said. “Perhaps cultural variables could explain the variance, but we just don’t know right now.”

Lopez’ results could have practical implications for policymakers, including elected officials and public health practitioners. For example, policymakers looking for a path to city well-being or gross national happiness may want to look for ways to foster optimism.

“The question of whether optimism is a beneficial human trait or a dangerous delusion has been debated for years,” Lopez said. “Our study strongly indicates the former – that optimism is a universal and adaptive human characteristic that is linked to improved well-being and perceived health.”



Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here: http://bit.ly/1awodaa
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@NYTimes columnist @WCRhoden will speak at a symposium about race and sports April 23. http://t.co/UiKA9MYNv0 http://t.co/PHwCOHqcfD
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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