The Power of Optimism

Last Updated Feb 24, 2011 3:08 PM EST

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes declared life to be "nasty, brutish and short." One hundred years later, philosophers were still arguing the point, with Kant and Rousseau supporting Hobbes and Locke opposing him.

Michael I. Norton and Lalin Anik, of Harvard Business School, and Lara B. Aknin and Elizabeth W. Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, decided to put Hobbes' claim to a more empirical test. Among their findings: Those who say life is short and hard are more likely to expect bad things to happen to them, even though they are no more likely to have experienced these things in the past than folks who say life is long and easy.

What's your life like?
In a series of experiments, the researchers asked three questions:

  • How happy are you?
  • Is life short or long?
  • Is life easy or hard?
They then looked for correlations between these answers and the participants' level of civic engagement and their optimism about the future.
  • "Short and hard" was the most popular response, with 51% of North Americans describing their lives this way. (A parallel study in India found similar, but not identical, results) Not surprisingly, these folks were the least happy.
  • Only 13% said life was long and easy. These respondents were happiest.
  • Some 18% said life was long and hard.
  • Some 18% said life was short and easy.
Those who said life was long and easy were more likely to volunteer and to donate money to charity than those who said life was short and hard.
  • 80% of the "long-and-easy" individuals said they volunteered, compared to 48% of those who said life was short and hard
  • 87% of those who said life was long and easy donated to charities, compared to 55% of those who said life was short and hard
Those who said life was long and easy were just as likely as those who said life was short and hard to have experienced negative events such as broken bones, car accidents, food poisoning, or the unexpected death of a loved one.
  • Folks who said life was short and hard were more likely to expect these sorts of bad things to happen to them in the future.
  • Everyone except those who said life was short and hard expected to experience more positive than negative events in the future. The "short and hard" camp expected to experience an equal number of positive and negative events.
Is life short or long? Easy or hard? And is it our outlook, our activities, or our actual life experiences that shape these views?

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Photo courtesy flickr user jonathan.youngblood
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her at www.twitter.com/weisul
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.