People expect happiness improvements that don’t quite arrive

Among the young, expectations for future well-being run far ahead of reported well-being today. The gap diminishes with age, and in the rich countries, the lines cross around age 65 after which the future is expected to be worse than the present. Except for this, people appear to be perpetually optimistic about their futures even though this optimism is perpetually frustrated by actual outcomes.

…This (unjustified) optimism seems to happen everywhere in the world…

That is from a new paper by Angus Deaton.


This, to me, seems to be intimately tied to the very same facet of human nature that let our ancestors think "hey, I bet life will be better on the savannah than it is in these trees", and later "hey, I bet life will be better across that ocean than it is over here".

That we are an optimistic species should surprise no one. Pessimistic monkeys could not have created the civilization around us.

Exactly. Thanx for phrasing my thoughts.

Agreed; optimism is required for the survival of the species. If pessimism reigned, there would be no incentive for life to continue.

Darwinian evolution eliminates those without survival-instincts & abilities

Non-pessimism/optimism is not necessary -- endurance of suffering & adversity is necessary.

Despair/suicide is a popular option throughout human history. Religion gives people hope of a better future in the next life.
Many religious people fully expect pain/suffering/disappointment in this earthly vale of tears... as the price to be paid/endured for a blissful afterlife. But life is very brief and ultimately meaningless for all.

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau)

Animals cannot visualize/conceptualize the future. It most likely requires language. We're a social species. Optimism probably enhances fitness. Even belief in an afterlife is a sign of optimism.

Optimism is a coping mechanism, a sort of mental immune system. If you believe things will get better it's easier to endure adversity than if you think life will always be a grim slog. Also, optimism that things *can* get better is an inducement to change things for the better, as opposed to a fatalism that holds that we are all just doomed.

In fairness, even optimistic monkeys could not have created the civilization around us.

In perhaps a more fair fairness, perhaps it was indeed optimistic monkeys that conjured this civilization swarming around us.

Or: is the "optimism" posited in this thread a mere variation on "absurdism": the future palpably does not exist, and if in fact we ever exit the past, we do so backwards and not equipped with any serviceable mirror.

Or: do extrapolations derived from historical conditions qualify "the past" for such optimistic assessment given that the past is the ground for any and every preferred outcome?

Optimism has problems. "Oh, this amount of food will be enough. There won't be a famine. Let's knock off work."

vs. "Must work more! Save more! Store more acorns!"

the lines cross around age 65 after which the future is expected to be worse than the present.

After 65 the future is worse than the present.

As people get older they get more realistic - and naturally less optimistic. Perhaps every 12 year old thinks they will be President, or an astronaut or whatever. But by the time you're 30 reality ought to have hit.

And the current President's perceived level of well being.

Why bother with a paper? 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast' is 275 years old, and recognized as truth by anyone who is conscious of time passing.

"The triumph of hope over experience" is pithier.

This sentence by Deaton in so utterly wrong: "people consistently but irrationally predict they will be better off five years from now."

We have evolved to have these things called 'beliefs about the future'. What is their purpose? "In equilibrium the beliefs are correct." Do you know which people say that they have no future. Depressed people.

Beliefs are not selected because they are correct. They are selected because they are useful. Apparently it is useful to be optimistic about the future.

“Utilitarians should favour middle aged men” vs young and women. Interesting observation, but it is similar to the observation my friend made lately, that despite all the millennial and feminist complaining going on, men in their forties seem to be the most glum section of the population, even the relatively well off ones.

Call them realists.

Yes, and people with a slight negative bias are more resilient.

So the middle-aged man is right! Where the two lines cross.

And in fact, over time, 'things will get better' is actually a good prophecy, though it's small comfort to those facing their own mortality.

Bonus trivia: we'd have invented the fountain of youth today if we had better patent laws hundreds of years ago. Think about it.

Love you, Ray!


Peter Thiel is a billionaire, is only age 50, and is pessimistic. From the NYT article: "There is a big painting of a cresting wave in Mr. Thiel’s living room, and it might as well be a visual metaphor for what is going on in big tech now." Yep, the wave has crested and the future is dim. Have a nice day.

That's just one viewpoint rayward. For another, read this book: "Progress" by J. Norberg ("We’ve made more progress over the last 100 years than in the first 100,000 ; • 285,000 more people have gained access to safe water every day for the last 25 years; • In the last 50 years world poverty has fallen more than it did in the preceding 500")

It's not my viewpoint, it's Thiel's. Thiel's pessimism is derived from his "tech" perspective, which is understandable now that the reality of tech (as opposed to the hype) is beginning to sink in. I'm more of the Steven Pinker school of thought on progress. From time to time (although not as often as he did in the past), Cowen points out how many millions of human beings have been lifted from poverty as the result of trade. Donald Trump claims to be Ronald Reagan's heir. Trump is the opposite of Reagan: while Reagan was the cheerful optimistic, Trump preaches gloom and doom. The world is a better place because of trade not in spite of it. Occasionally one needs a reminder of how much the world has progressed. Here's a reminder, a review of Joshua Freeman's history of the factory:

Both Colin Powell and Paul Krugman linked Reagan to Professor Harold Hill (The Music Man). I intend to mention it in the book I intend to write about Powell one day.

That looks like a great book Rayward, and I would like to read it, but it has only a little to do with Trump's victory. Trump wanted to be POTUS and he saw an underserved market. He said all the right magical words and he won. It is that simple.

As for nostalgia for factory work, an unmarried, unemployed or underemployed, middle-aged man with an opioid addiction has no memory of the unionized factory jobs that became increasingly scarce since about 1973. All they know is their own unhappy circumstances and their bleak prospects for the future which will end only in death.

Hillary openly and publicly despised those people and Trump capitalized on that.

I agree with Thiel. Not that the tech future is dim, just much less exciting than the recent past. The last quarter century has produced amazing technologies that people are going to be using and enjoying for a very long time. But it appears to me that the era of revolutionary advances is largely over. Which is typical. The first 50 years of aviation development got us from the Wright flyer to the 707. The next 50 gave us a lot of incremental improvements to airframes that have changed relatively little (the 737 has been in production for over 50 years). I expect smart phones, laptops, digital cameras, etc to look pretty much how they already look and do pretty much what they already do for decades to come. But that's OK.

I expect the bigger (more revolutionary) changes to come in bio-tech and materials (nano-tech), rather than electronics, although ubiquitous real AI could make considerably more than incremental impact.

"I expect the bigger (more revolutionary) changes to come in bio-tech and materials (nano-tech)"

Maybe. But it's hard to keep track of all the things that were going to be revolutionary but turned out to be underwhelming. Just for the hell of it, I asked Alexa, "What are some examples of revolutionary ideas that didn't pan out?" I'm sure you can guess her (non) answer. But she is a trooper when it comes to asking about the weather.

I agree with engineer, but bio-tech is going to face tremendous regulatory friction. The technology exists and is ready to be released for closed system insulin delivery devices but the regulatory and legal environment is blocking it. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world suffer and die needlessly from diabetes.

I bet this is true for other life saving and life enhancing technologies.

"I agree with engineer, but bio-tech is going to face tremendous regulatory friction. The technology exists and is ready to be released for closed system insulin delivery devices but the regulatory and legal environment is blocking it. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world suffer and die needlessly from diabetes"

Then why don't they get off their bloody backsides, exercise and lose fifty pounds, in order to achieve a more normal insulin response?

Your 'technology panacea' is completely misguided.

Well, I would take it even farther. We have not really seen what tech will bring -- nor do I think we've hit the declining return in a global sense. I think we're (humanity overall) is still digesting the first tech revolution and just starting to actually understand how to use the new potential. We still have the old, physical industrial mindset and have been applying that thinking. As the thinking changes our imaginations with change and further possibilities will change.

One example is the recent bit about using drones as 3-D printing devices to start building things. That really change the application and design constraints but is at best a tiny step away from the old construction model for building things (be it an assembly line or a construction site that would be limited by the design within the existing construction environment of that factory or site). We might even find that with such technology actually building in space -- or the upper atmosphere -- without any underlying surface becomes not only possible but the norm. Or convert them to submarine devices and now construction on the ocean floors (or even at some given depth) becomes a much simpler problem to solve -- especially as even limited AI functionality become more standard fare.

I rarely read the NYT these days because it’s politics are so borderline hysterical, but an interview with Thiel? Sign me up.

Alas, previous opinion confirmed. The story is another obsession with Russia and Trump. They had an opportunity to talk to one of the more interesting individuals of our day, and all they wanted was another chapter in their book of madness.

I think the NYT is doing a good job exposing all the Russian meddling that rigged the elections for Trump.

Sure, on that point I agree. They are doing a good job exposing Trump's Russian connections but they also hired Bari Weiss and Brett Stephens - their Op-Ed page has gone off the rails.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning —“

The Green Light is also found in the tropics, it's that brief instant when atmospheric effects produce, at times, a sudden burst of green light just at sunset. It was made fun of to great effect by the classic tropical expat novel "Don't Stop the Carnival", a 1965 novel by American writer Herman Wouk.

That was a good book!

Also The Cruel Sea.

From Wikipedia:

"Depressive realism is the hypothesis developed by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than do non-depressed individuals. Although depressed individuals are thought to have a negative cognitive bias that results in recurrent, negative automatic thoughts, maladaptive behaviors, and dysfunctional world beliefs, depressive realism argues not only that this negativity may reflect a more accurate appraisal of the world but also that non-depressed individuals' appraisals are positively biased. This theory remains very controversial, as it brings into question the mechanism of change that cognitive behavioral therapy for depression purports to target. While some of the evidence currently supports the plausibility of depressive realism, its effect may be restricted to a select few situations."

No. Real people with depression are not more rational, no way. Depressed people are somehow people who lost the game and think they lost it forever. This is not a rational view.

". . . and I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more - the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort - to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires - and expires, too soon, too soon - before life itself.” Conrad, "Youth"

Of course, Conrad lived a great deal of what he wrote. Others writers drank through it.

Thanks for the props!

Something very similar from Proust:

"Death might have struck me down in that moment and it would have seemed to me a trivial, or rather an impossible thing, for life was not outside me but in me; I should have smiled pityingly had a philosopher then expressed the idea that some day, even some distant day, I should have to die, that the eternal forces of nature would survive me , the forces of that nature beneath whose godlike feet I was no more than a grain of dust; that, after me, there would still remain those rounded swelling cliffs, that see, that moonlight and sky! How could it have been possible; how could the world have lasted longer than myself, since I was not lost in its vastness, since it was the world that was enclosed in me, in me whom it fell far short of filling, in me who, feeling that there was room to store so many other treasures, flung sky and sea and cliffs contemptuously into a corner."

Even though the flying cars never arrived, people of a certain age understand how much life has improved from earlier in their lifetimes, and they expect that trend to continue. In other words, their expressed dissatisfaction is vs. an ideal, while their optimism is a product of what has actually happened.

The question they ask is:

“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally stand at this time?”

And then it says that the average for rich countries is between 7 and 8! WTF? Do people have no imagination? To me a 10 would be I've become an immortal deity who can remake the universe at a whim. An 8 would be like a world historical figure at the moment of their greatest triumph. A 7 would be the 5 seconds after you learn that you've gotten a nobel prize or an oscar for best actor or sold your startup for 10 figures or something. An ordinary, middle class, developed country life should be like a 3. Or else, what do you have to aim at?

Is that (unjustified) optimism or reality based pessimism?

Both a +1 and a lol.

It's the best possible life, immortal diety doesn't count. Average people also won't count winning a nobel prize, (They hated their high school science classes.) nor founding a startup.(Who wants all that responsibility?)

This is a great point. The ladder asks you to rate how good your life is relative to the best and worst possible lives for you that you can imagine. So maybe a happy optimistic person who can imagine that it is possible for him to create a billion-dollar start-up would rate himself lower on that ladder scale, while an anxious pessimistic person who doesn’t think a better life is possible but can easily imagine more bad things happening would have a higher ladder scale number.

People give *lower* numbers as they get older??? It is a bad question but I would have guessed opposite. Climbing the ladder of life...or descending

This is such a terrible question. No small wonder there is a replication crisis. I don't even need to know whether the statistics are bogus to know that absolutely nothing is proved by the answers to this question.

So, life in rich countries is clearly and demonstrably better than the living standards of 99.99% of all humans to have ever lived in terms of health, education, lifespan, Freedom, entertainment, communications, tolerance and equality of opportunity, and your take on the proper answer is a 3?

I find this entire paper to be an attempt to force the data into Deaton's blinkered worldview. Let's just assume we need to redistribute income, now who do we pass around the goodies to? Young people who should be getting a job? Maybe middle aged people who are actually at peak earning? Or the retired who already have a large supply of the wealth and leisure? Perhaps there was another choice we skipped?

Don’t even get me started on the nonsense that life hasn’t been getting better over that time. You would think a Nobel economist would be familiar that when you use PCE (the proper) inflation, add benefits, taxes and transfers, and adjust for 40 million immigrants that the median income is up by 40 to 60 percent over 1980. Even a casual look at actual consumption standards reinforces this.

Finally, I am not sure anyone who is actually familiar with real people would expect them to give the "average" answer. They would be expected to give what they expect is most likely for themselves, which with even a few seconds of thought differs from both the expected median and the mean.

The same predisposition of hopefulness that makes people strive toward an imagined better future is the same predisposition exploited by others who actually have more control over that future for their own benefit. The whole culture gets nudged by it's leaders toward a manufacturing of mostly false optimism and hopefulness. (Thinking of Jacob and Rachel. Empire of Illusion.)

of course optimism is justified...that’s the history of the west for the past, oh, 500 years.

If you believe in evolution(*) this is unsurprising. Humans are given a motivation to keep trying, and for most it works. It is a survival tool. Perhaps coyotes have similar optimism in their doggy hearts.

* - and is an open question whether that is even expected anymore.

A doggy, being unable to imagine the future, doesn't need a positive bias. Humans, capable of remembering our struggles in our past and imagining obstacles in the future, need that positive bias just to keep trying. Otherwise, we might as well retire to the opium den. In fact, some of us do exactly that.

This was discussed by evolutionist William Calvin.

Basically, any animal that shows planning must have a scenario in mind, and if there is a scenario, they are thinking of the future.

True, however it is also true that only humans can conceptualize a future apart from their immediate needs. Dogs and cats do not think past dinner time.

I don't think the coyote is debating college plans no. Maybe, just maybe, thinking about "rabbits tomorrow."

"This (unjustified) optimism seems to happen everywhere in the world…"

Adam Smith: "And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind..."

A lot of the purpose of imagination is executive planning. Somewhat akin to marginalizing on an intractable Bayesian posterior. Imagining scenarios for tomorrow helps us determine the optimal decisions to make today. It's often hard to simulate forward ("If I do X now, it increases the odds that desirable thing A happens"). So instead what imagination does is work backwards ("Let's imagine some future version of me with A. In this scenario did I do X?")

We're much more interested in the distribution of future scenarios around optimal decisions. If we're confident that X is a very good decision, we'll probably look in the neighborhood of X for even better decisions. That entails focusing our imaginations around the best possible future outcomes, because that's where the priors near X will likely be found. ("Wow, if I become a doctor, I'll make a lot of money. Now what if I become a cardiologist... Maybe I shouldn't just consider medical schools, but focus my search around good cardiology programs").

There's little reason to keep re-focusing imaginative effort around pessimistic scenarios. Once you know some decision Z is bad, you probably want to stay far away from it. ("Hmmm, if I rob this liquor store, I'll probably wind up in prison. But I wonder if I'll get more or less prison time from robbing a bank. Who cares, better just stay away from robbing anything")

Anyway, what I'm saying is that as long as an agent has long-range executive planning and limited computational resources it's quite rational to be biased optimistic.

Another original and thought-provoking comment, Doug; what are you doing here?

Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today

Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Is it bad that hope outpaces the reality? I've seen people live primarily happy lives on little more than hope.

Hope is a dangerous thing my friend, it can kill a man...hope will drive a man insane.

Have not read Deaton's paper, but it is the current widely held view that the relation between happiness and age is on average U-shaped. Thus the optimism of youth is indeed frustrated; they will get less happy over the next several decades to middle age. But as one gets older, happiness rises, even as future prospects health and income wise deteriorate (latest is that maybe no more increase in happiness after 70, but not much decline either; this lit says youthful happiness peak may be late 20s, thus an M-shaped curve). This would be consistent with Tyler's summary of Deaton's argument, not sure he drew on this well-established literature or not.

Just checked the paper and he draws on some of the existing lit on U-shaped age curves of happiness, but not all of it and not aware gf and in disagreement with latest M-shaped studies.


Isn't there a fallacy of composition here? The world is obviously becoming wealthier and healthier, yet at my age (old) my own prospects for being better off five years from now are not good. What is happening is that new people are coming into the world with far better prospects than the ones who are leaving it, a process that has been going on for at least two centuries. Yet no individual is getting farther from their own demise. It seems like Deaton didn't read his own book (The Great Escape).

I recommend Yuval Harari's " Homo Deus ".

Comments for this post are closed