Optimism, In The Middle Of A Depression

By now we've all heard that the sky has fallen, which is why CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman couldn't believe the results of a CBS News/ New York Times poll taken before this week's Wall Street rally. It asked, "Do you think the economy is getting better or worse?" You could also pick "staying the same."

Most Americans - 51 percent - thought the economy was getting worse. Only 8 percent thought it was getting better, while 40 percent thought it was staying the same. Hartman wondered: What the heck were these Pollyannas thinking?

To find out, he called one back to arrange an interview.

"Enjoy this beautiful winter day," the answering machine instructed.

It was actually cold and rainy. But inside - this proud member of the 8 percent was waiting for Hartman's visit with juice and homemade lemon meringue pie - and pure, unbridled optimism.

His name is Mark Jastrzembski. He's unmarried and a retired corrections officer.

"The president talked about hope. I've taken that to the next step. Hope means that you want stuff to happen. Faith means you know it's going to happen. I'm a 100 percent certain that things are going to get better in this country," Jastrzembski said.

He lives in Muskegon, Mich. - which makes his survey answer all the more confounding.

"I look around, you know, I'm not blind," he said. "I have 10 to 15 close friends who got laid off."

Fortunately, Jastrzembski said he doesn't need to see hope to believe things are getting better. In fact, quite the opposite - he thinks we need to believe it to see it.

"The problem with the country is that we're not feeling good about ourselves," he said.

There are others like him.

Hartman met Michael Seltzer at a local meeting of the Muskegon Optimists Club. He's in charge of all the Optimist clubs in Michigan. He's also recently unemployed.

"There's something known as a self-fulfilling prophesy, and attitude is a big part of that self-fulfilling prophesy," Seltzer said. "And if everybody you talk to says the economy is getting worse, they can make that happen."

It's true. Economists call it a feedback loop. When people are pessimistic they do less spending and investing. Less spending and investing makes the economy gets worse. A worse economy makes people even more pessimistic, and so on. Does that mean if we could all somehow just believe the economy is getting better that all of a sudden it would? The answer seems to be yes. And no.

Actor and economic commentator Ben Stein says the problem is -- for people who don't think America has the right economic plan -- it's very hard for them to just pretend. To which Jastrzembski says, please, at least try.

"What can we as individual people do to get this economy going? We've got to change this philosophy, change this attitude, start thinking positively," Jastrzembski said.

That may or may not help - but there is new evidence this week that optimistic people are, indeed, more likely to see their 401(k)s make a comeback. Because, as this new study shows -- they live longer.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.