Optimism Drives Americans Toward the Horizon

Americans remain an optimistic lot. Across all ages, races, sex, location and economic background, Americans are expressing a sense that their individual and collective action can and will move the world forward in a positive way.
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The horizon always has been an inviting destination for Americans. Whether it was literal, as in the time of the westward expansion, or figurative, via the sense that something better lies ahead, Americans have refused to succumb to a sense of helplessness and have looked to the horizon as a source of hope.

We're constantly studying Americans' attitudes about the future and the figurative horizon continues to hold an undeniable appeal to a majority of people in this nation. In late 2008, we learned that every age group (millennials in particular) was feeling pretty good about things, despite an unusually dark stretch of economic headlines. Perhaps it was the sense that things could only get better under an incoming president -- a new leader whose message was built around change and hope. Still, we were a little surprised and fairly delighted to find that optimism could withstand a persistent frontal assault of bad news.

More than six months later, with economic signals decidedly mixed and the novelty of a new administration somewhat reduced, we asked people again how they are facing the future.

By leaning fully forward into it, apparently.

In short, Americans remain an optimistic lot. Across all ages, races, sex, location and economic background, Americans are expressing a sense that their individual and collective action can and will move the world forward in a positive way.

When asked to contemplate whether "when good things happen in the world, they have a more positive outlook on life," 92% agreed. When queried as to whether they expect more good things to happen to them than bad, 89% said yes. And, as to expecting "the best" in uncertain times -- which these times certainly are -- 79% answered in the affirmative. The horizon, indeed, remains a most attractive proposition to a great majority of Americans.

Maybe the most encouraging finding the Pepsi Optimism Project uncovered is that Americans understand who they are in this regard and what they can do to improve their and their country's wellbeing. Roughly nine of 10 respondents believe that, when challenged, Americans will rise to the occasion. This sentiment comes on the heels of nearly nine months of continual talk about the economy, most of it dour. We hear about jobs lost, businesses closed and savings evaporated (occasionally by nefarious means), yet here we are, keeping faith with each other as a country.

This increased sense of optimism cuts across the demographic spectrum, though there are a few twists here and there. The words "change" and "necessary," for example, are particularly optimistic indicators for African-Americans -- evidently more so than for whites or Latinos. What's more, city dwellers apparently are feeling more optimistic about the potential for economic recovery than their suburban counterparts. But what unites people of all backgrounds, ages and locales is what optimism means to them: It means hope, confidence and success.

And, we should avoid the post-modern trap of pitting "realism" against "optimism". As a practical matter, optimism can and should embrace realism. When we look at the horizon, we know that the space between where we are today at that destination point will be filled with trials and tribulations. However, we also know -- deeply and intuitively -- that we will reach that horizon. I believe it is that sense of optimism that opens that path for imagination and creativity that has made America great over the past 200 years.

It is the same spirit that got us through a depression in the 1930s, a world war in the 1940s and societal upheaval in the 1960s. It is the collective consciousness expressing itself at the end of yet another difficult decade. We've seen our nation attacked; our military challenged by danger and duty; our infrastructure exposed as vulnerable to nature's wrath; and our economic system's underpinnings shaken. There seems to be a national realization that, if we can get through this, whatever "this" is at any given moment -- we can get through anything.

Its face is one of optimism, taking inspiration from those who keep forging forward -- no matter what. Two celebrities have emerged in our study as the "Public Faces of Optimism." They are a pair of notable personalities who have battled adversity and continue to fight: Lance Armstrong and Michael J. Fox. Each has confronted serious health issues (Parkinson's for Fox, cancer for Armstrong) and neither has given up. Instead, they advocate for others who, in turn, carry on the fight alongside them.

We may see the best in ourselves in certain celebrities, but we also find encouragement from the physical communities we share. While the online world will surely continue to grow, it is in "live" situations where we find ourselves feeling most optimistic. Live music, live speeches and live theater, along with live sporting events, were named among the top six "optimism boosters" for Americans, all of them chosen by between 69% and 84% of respondents. It seems to do a person good to get out and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And, while issues like health and personal finances are key sources of optimism, relationships "with family and friends" was cited most often in the June study: up to 91% from 81% last November.

Pessimism is rooted in the notion of "helplessness". Many things in life are indeed beyond our control. But, as Martin Seligman has noted, there is a vast unclaimed territory of actions over which we can take control. Within that vast unclaimed territory of actions, optimism serves as the spark to initiate that control. As the Pepsi Optimism Project indicates, many Americans have asserted that control.

Americans are hopeful. Americans are confident. With that kind of optimism proliferating, success never seems too far over the horizon, does it?

Frank Cooper III is CMO of portfolio brands for Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages. He oversees the company's full soft drink portfolio, including the Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Sierra Mist trademarks.

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