Do we get more optimistic as we get older?

"I’m finding in my forties that the glass is getting increasingly full."

"I’m finding in my forties that the glass is getting increasingly full."

It’s my birthday today.  Instead of getting down about my decline, I’m celebrating the fact I made it this far. Growing up during the Cold War, I assumed I would die young in a hot blast.  I read so many post-apocalyptic books such as ‘When the Wind Blows’ and watched so many films like ‘Mad Max’, I had nightmares that I’d be crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge when everything would go white and my flesh would begin to burn. I even had a plan where to meet my first boyfriend when the nuclear warheads were on their way.


I never understood those incredibly old people aged over 40 who did not share my defeatism.  I maintained my pessimism as I began to work in the media. Interviewing experts about everything from the hole in the ozone layer to murder, from the predicted end of the music industry to global warming, hardly challenged my gloom.  I’d always be surprised when they expressed hope that humanity would step up and save people and the planet.



Now I understand their perspective.  I’m finding in my forties that the glass is getting increasingly full. I’m a long way from becoming Pollyanna-ish but I do think the world is getting better.


I’ve witnessed seismic shifts. I reported on the ban of CFCs.  I was hugged by an elder as Paul Keating and Aboriginal leaders signed off on native title legislation and wept watching Kevin Rudd apologise to the stolen generation.   While living In India I observed the rise of a new middle class and mass immunisation schemes. I’ve taken part in the launch of new mental health services and been heartened at the reduction in the rate of youth suicide.


Up close, I see my children experience schooling that’s done away with the cane and is better at assisting the disabled.  I know if they are gay they’ll be less likely to be bullied.  I’ve seen the suburb of my childhood grow more interesting and diverse.  The coffee is better, TV is better and, with apologies to my childhood idol George and the rest of the Famous 5, children’s literature is much improved.  (My jury is out on adult literature and fashion.)


Of course, my world is privileged but statistics back me up. We are on the edge of eradicating polio from the planet, UNICEF estimates 12000 fewer babies die every day than in 1990. We are living in an era that historians call ‘the Long Peace’, with far fewer international and civil wars that are, believe it or not, less deadly.  Across the world, people are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives.


I know we still have major problems – millions are dying of poverty and in conflict.  One billion are hungry. There’s too much power and money still concentrated in the hands of too few.  Women are far from equality and freedom from violence. We face massive challenges in fundamentalism, land degradation and climate change.


In Australia, I am sad that Aboriginal people still suffer institutionalized racism and inequality.  I worry our children are exposed to hard-core porn before they’ve even kissed. I’m concerned about the job losses in certain sectors of the economy. I understand the uncertainty but I’m concerned there’s too much negativity in the political debate.  Many people seem to be working themselves up into a righteous fury and fear when we have an economy that’s the envy of many. 


In their book ‘Abundance: the Future is Better Than You Think’, serial entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler argue that we have a cognitive bias for the negative.  But they argue things are definitely improving and that the rise of technology and communication will increase the rate of change for the better.


I’m choosing to believe them. I’m teaching myself to rise above the doom and gloom; to see the big picture.  I refuse to be a middle aged Australian who thinks the young of today have no future and that the country is going to hell in a hand basket.


I know I’m not alone. Some psychology researchers actually believe we do get more optimistic with age.  In one study, subjects were shown faces portraying sadness, anger, fear and happiness. Those aged 18-21 focused on the fear faces. Those 57 to 84 zeroed in on the happy faces and avoided the angry ones.  Maybe, as we get older, we make ourselves focus on the positive.  Or perhaps we gain perspective. 


When I was 15 and waiting for the bombs to drop I would have imagined my forties as a time of decline and decay.  Now I’m here, I believe the inevitable rot is in my own body rather than in society and the planet. I can swing between pessimism, optimism and nihilism in one afternoon but today, all day, I’m choosing to believe that, despite inevitable set backs, things really are getting better.


Do you get more optimistic as you get older?