Ah, sure we'll all be grand
Amid the constant gloom, there is no dampening the Irish appetite for optimism, and our rate of smiling and laughing leaves happier nations in the doldrums. The greatest benefit of optimism is that it counteracts the corosive effets of pessimism, writes MAUREEN GAFFNEYCAST YOUR MIND back to 2006. The Celtic Tiger is rampant. Ireland boasts the second-highest per-capita GDP in the world. We have begun to define ourselves in a new way: modern, prosperous, outward-looking and enterprising, taking a more assured place in the wider world. Other countries are beating a path to our door to find the secret of our success.
During that year, the Gallup Organization, as part of its regular global survey of well-being and optimism, asked Irish people about their lives. Respondents had to imagine a ladder with 10 steps, with the top rung of the ladder representing “the best possible life” and the bottom rung “the worst possible life”. They were then asked, “On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now?”. Hardly surprisingly in that golden time, 76 per cent of Irish people were defined as “thriving”: rating their current lives at seven or above and the expectation of their future lives at eight or above. Ireland was barely behind the consistently top-ranked country, Denmark, where 79 per cent of people fell into the thriving category.
Now, fast-forward to 2010. Armageddon. The full scale of the banking and economic collapse has finally sunk in. The government is floundering. In December the game is up. We have to seek a national bailout. The airways are alight with forecasts of national doom. In that morning-after optimism, Gallup came back to ask the same questions. Astonishingly, Ireland still emerges in the top group of 10 nations in which a majority of people were managing to thrive despite the recession.
Battered and bruised certainly, the percentage of people in Ireland who are thriving had dropped to 54 per cent and we had slipped from eighth to 10th place. More people – 43 per cent – were now in the “struggling” category, with moderate well-being but with more daily stress and worry about money.Yet only 4 per cent are defined as “suffering”,with their well-being at high risk and their view of the future very negative. But, more astonishingly, in 2010 we were still ahead of the UK, the US and even Germany, the economic engine of the EU. In Germany, only 44 per cent were thriving, 52 per cent were struggling and 5 per cent were suffering. Or contrast our scores with those of other countries that had been, or were about to be, bailed out. In Spain, the rate of thriving was only 39 per cent, while in Greece it was 16 per cent. A whopping 25 per cent of Greeks were suffering.
So, while well being and optimism about the future are strongly linked to GDP, it is certainly not the whole story. Gallup captures this more psychological element of thriving with another set of questions about people’s day-to-day experiences. Do they feel well rested, respected and interested in things? Do they feel they are learning something new? How much are they enjoying their lives? How often do they smile and laugh? The Irish scored high on all those factors. And when it came to smiling and laughing we outstripped the top-ranking countries in northern Europe.
This must be at least part of the explanation for the persistence of Irish optimism even in adversity: our temperament. Even during the worst of times, we manage to knock some fun out of adversity. Our sense of humour has, almost singly-handedly, kept the country going during the darkest times. The now-famous “Angela Merkel thinks we’re working” banner expressed brilliantly that Irish exuberance and irrepressible humour; good-natured, slyly poking fun at ourselves and at Germany. But also signalling a kind of temperamental defiance.
In contrast to American optimism, for example, which could be called visionary, we tend not to look for that shining city on the hill. Irish optimism is more pragmatic. We may not be quite sure what lies ahead, but we remain confident that whatever it is, we will deal with it. That tolerance for ambiguity, even pleasure in it, is reflected in the ubiquitous use of the word “grand” in Ireland. “Grand” can mean a thousand things. It does not commit us to anything too high-flown. It maintains a pleasing ambiguity. It keeps us simultaneously alert for threat and opportunities; a characteristic of how optimists’ brains function. Pessimists, on the other hand, are solely focused on the possibility of threat and thereby miss opportunities.
Our optimism is also deeply rooted in another element of the Irish temperament; our pleasurable and lively engagement in our day-to-day lives. For all the lamentation about how the Celtic Tiger undermined our quality of life, for the most part, Irish people managed to use their new-found prosperity to relish their relationships with family and friends, to risk being more open and personally expressive and to develop and celebrate their sense of achievement and competence. Even when the bad times came, we continued to do that, albeit with a lot less money.
So when Irish people say, as they often do, “I’m just getting on with things” it suggests “I am battening down the hatches and focusing on the things I have control over and that still give me pleasure and purpose in my life.”
SO, DOES OPTIMISM matter? It does: even more than you might think.
Being optimistic is not just a happy accessory to life. It is a vital precursor to individual and economic well-being. But true benefits are associated only with a particular kind of moderate or realistic optimism. This is defined by psychological researchers in a very precise way and it is worth paying attention to every element of that definition. It is the belief that things will work out well in the end if you make an effort and if you persist in working towards those good outcomes with no guarantee that they will happen. It is the readiness to maintain a positive outlook in the absence of very definite evidence to the contrary. This last part is crucial because it depends on remaining open to disconfirming evidence, especially when that evidence does not suit your narrow point of view or may threaten your self-interest.