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New study discovers the trajectory of optimism throughout life

When are you most optimistic? A study found how optimism varies throughout life.

Still from Hugh Wilson's 1996 film "The First Wives Club."

  • Researchers studied more than 1,000 people during the course of 7 years.
  • They found that levels of optimism change throughout life.
  • Optimism grows through the 30s and 40s and peaks in mid-50s.

How do levels of optimism change throughout our life? Researchers at the University of California, Davis, figured out the answer.

They analyzed a relatively large sample of 1,169 Mexican-Americans between ages 26 and 71 who were surveyed over a period of seven years. At four different instances, the participants completed the Life Orientation Test, used to measure optimism.

The test has six questions:

  1. In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
  2. If something can go wrong for me, it will.
  3. I'm always optimistic about my future.
  4. I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
  5. I rarely count on good things happening to me.
  6. Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad

Participants also answered 54 questions about a variety of positive and negatives experiences they've recently had. These included: "Over the past three months, you got laid off" as well as "In the past year, you were accepted into an educational program that is important to you" and "In the past year, you developed new friendships that are important to you."

The scientists found that optimism tends to be lower for people in their 20s, then goes up through the 30s and 40s until peaking in the 50s (with 55 being the age of peak optimism). After that it starts to gradually decline.

The authors called this pattern "an inverted U shape, with a peak in late midlife." Previous studies showed that a similar trend is followed by other positive personality traits such as self-esteem and satisfaction with life.

Interestingly, the researchers also discovered that being optimistic is not necessarily tied to the kinds of events that happen in your life. Subjects who had positive experiences did indicate higher trajectories of optimism. But the ones who had negative experiences were not necessarily less optimistic.

Check out the study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.

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