The latest results collected from Northwestern Mutual’s Optimism Barometer, an online measurement tool, indicate a distinct upward trend in positive outlooks among Americans, despite the near-term challenges of the current economic climate. Most notably, recent data has revealed a 60% year-over-year jump in people who scored at the highest end of the optimism scale.

“These results suggest that Americans are, in increasing numbers, accepting the reality of the ‘new normal’ while also being able to see beyond the immediate challenges of the current economic cycle and remain optimistic about their long-term prospects,” said Greg Oberland, executive vice president at Northwestern Mutual, a Milwaukee provider of life insurance. “We find it encouraging that Americans appear to be widening their time horizons and bringing a long-term approach to how they pursue their goals. It’s something at the very core of what we believe in, and aim to deliver through our process; and it¹s a strategy that also has broad applications beyond finances in people¹s lives.”

Developed using questions from The American Reality Study, which was commissioned by Northwestern Mutual and conducted in 2009 by independent research firm Mathew Greenwald & Associates, The Optimism Barometer’s questions were chosen from among those that were highly statistically predictive of optimism among survey participants.

The Optimism Barometer consists of six short questions that take less than a minute to complete. The questions are not what one might expect, but optimists and pessimists answer them in distinctly clear patterns, notes the insurer. The questions were culled from The American Reality Study, which was commissioned in 2009 by Northwestern Mutual to help provide insight into how Americans are handling the economic, political, and social changes taking place in the United States; and to gain valuable perspectives on the way people view their lives and their future.

In the first quarter of 2009, only 25% of Americans scored between 8-10 (out of 10) on the optimism scale. Today, nearly 40% (39.7%) scored between 8-10, representing a 60% year-over-year increase in people at the highest end of the scale.

Additionally, it is not only the most optimistic among us that saw increases. Optimism shifted up in all categories, leaving only 2.4% of total respondents in the “least optimistic” category (0-4 on the optimism scale) versus 19% last year.

In terms of demographics, younger respondents skewed slightly less optimistic than other age groups. Compared with an overall average score of 6.8, respondents 17 and younger averaged 6.3, and those 18-20 averaged 6.8. At the same time, older respondents were less likely to strongly agree  with the statement, “a person can do anything if they put their mind to it.” Total “strongly agree” responses ranged from 66.7% for age 17 and younger, down to 42% for 60 and older.

“The generational differences in the data have interesting implications about the effect that experience has on optimism,” said Oberland. “On one hand, older respondents who have seen more economic cycles have higher levels of optimism than younger people who have less experience. That said, younger people believe more in the power of sheer ambition while older respondents are more cynical of the idea that anything is possible.”




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