Research Digest

Here’s How Feelings Of Optimism Change As We Age

By Emily Reynolds

There’s a commonly held notion that young people are more hopeful about the future than any other group — you might have heard this referred to, either positively or negatively, as “youthful optimism”. Even Jane Austen picked up on it: “There is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions”, she wrote in Sense and Sensibility.

But is this actually the case? According to a new study from William J. Chopik and colleagues published in the Journal of Research in Personality, optimism actually continues growing well past youth — and it’s only later in life that it begins to decline.

The team was interested in how optimism changes with age — and how life events might affect that trajectory. They gathered data from three longitudinal studies of people aged between 16 and 101: one from the Netherlands (10,045 participants), one from Germany (42,691 participants) and one from the United States (22,150 participants).

In the Dutch and American studies optimism was tracked using a six-item measure, with participants rating how much they agreed with statements including “I expect more good things to happen” or “I rarely count on good things”. In Germany, participants rated how optimistic or pessimistic they were about the future on a scale from 1 to 4.

The team also looked at sixteen life events concerning children (e.g. childbirth, or a child leaving home), relationships (e.g. getting married or divorcing,), parents (loss of a parent), moving house, health, and employment (e.g. getting a job for the first time or retiring). The team then measured variance in the optimism measure from 2006 to 2016, mapping it against these life events.

Results suggested that “youthful optimism” isn’t quite as accurate a concept as we might assume: in fact, younger adults were lower in optimism than middle aged people. This hopefulness then plateaued until later life, when optimism started to decline again. This also held for pessimism, which was highest among older adults and sharply decreased as young adults reached middle age.

It might not fit our assumptions about optimism, but it does make sense that optimism increases into middle age. As we get older we have more and more experience of success, whether that’s in our careers or our personal lives. We’re more likely to know what we want out of life and may also feel in control of the future – hence feeling more optimistic.

This pattern was different in the German sample, however, where younger adults were more optimistic than their middle aged counterparts: the team suggests this may be down to social and cultural changes between generations specific to Germany.     

Predictably, optimism was sometimes related to positive events and pessimism to negative events — if you’ve experienced chronic illness, unemployment or bereavement it makes sense you’d have less hope for the future. However, results weren’t consistent between samples and were not all so straightforward: for instance, negative changes in health were associated with higher levels of optimism in some cases.

These inconsistent results could be because life events were simply categorised as either “occurred” or “did not occur”, which may not pick up on the nuances of how people actually experience things. A break-up, for example, might be a positive life event for somebody in a miserable relationship; similarly, leaving the parental home may be more or less emotionally significant depending on person and context. Future research could look at categorising life events more thoroughly.

Limitations aside, the results do suggest that human beings tend to be fairly optimistic for most of their lives. As Chopik says, this resilience is a cheering thought. “We often think that the really sad or tragic things that happen in life completely alter us as people,” he said. “But people diagnosed with an illness or who go through another crisis still felt positive about the future and what life had ahead for them on the other side.”

Changes in optimism and pessimism in response to life events: Evidence from three large panel studies

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest