I Won’t Give Up My American Optimism

expat issues

87-1248162843HTT4I sometimes think I’m a bit terrible at “being American.” Patriotism doesn’t do much for me. I don’t care for football. I’m not religious. I’m not even overly concerned about home ownership. “American Dream”… meh. But, living and travelling abroad, one aspect of my American nature always comes to the fore – my wide-tooth grinned optimism.

Optimism is so ingrained in the American psyche that it never occurred to me that others didn’t view life with as rosy glasses as I do until I started travelling. We Americans are so wired for optimism that the “pursuit of happiness” is in our national constitution as one of our three “inalienable rights.” 19th Century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who studied the United States extensively, said that  Americans “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man … They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.”* 

My optimism manifests itself in every cell of my person. I’m drawn to stories with a happy ending or positive message. As someone who has made a life in stories, I realize this predilection is a little juvenile – like a diet of candy – but that’s how I’m wired. If stories are meant to instruct, I want instruction on how we might live happily. I tend to assume the best of people. When discussing the bleak events in the world, I try to know the facts, but always find myself peddling messages about hope. When I moved to Australia, I struggled with the darker aspects of the Australian sense of humor, and on our recent trip to Eastern Europe, I couldn’t make sense of shop clerks and waiters who never cracked a smile, though my husband assured me that they were being perfectly friendly.

I’ve heard people from other countries remark on American optimism with either admiration, annoyance, or an “isn’t that cute” tone you’d generally reserve for talking to pre-school children. My German friend V and I have been in a few countries together, and have a series of jokey photos we took in Paris, one called “German Tourists” where we stood grim-faced in front of monuments and the other called “American Tourists” in which we affected the largest smiles our faces would hold, coupled with ‘thumbs up’ signs.

We see things brightly, my people. We like happiness. Effusiveness is just our way.

Some people find American optimism charming or something to aspire to. Other people find it cloying, misguided or insincere. I can see how it might be annoying, and given the state of the world, quite possibly misguided, but one thing American optimism is not is insincere. I think our collective optimism stems from the focus on the individual, and the belief that we are all masters of our own destinies. If, as a society, we go forth with that premise without also believing that things are going to work out, then the whole thing falls apart. We can’t strive for a better future if we don’t believe in it.

Cultural optimism does come with problems. For one, we have far too great a tendency to diminish real mental health issues like Depression because they don’t fit our idea of how people ought to behave. And, I think we have an unhealthy fear and distaste for the darker parts of life like illness, ageing and death. We pretend they don’t exist, or we paint a positive veneer on them, when perhaps we’d all do better to acknowledge and embrace these very real elements of life by allowing for grieving and accepting the inevitability of death as part of life. Other cultures do these elements of the human experience much better than Americans.

In the face of world tragedy and looming crises, optimism is a hard trait to carry earnestly and gracefully. I have lately asked myself too often if hope is a fruitless exercise? A childish outlook? How does optimism flicker on in the face of climate change, gun violence, refugees, and worldwide terrorist violence?

Yet, my hope survives, and for me, the answer is that optimism should not operate as a lone wolf. Optimism can walk hand in hand with grief, questioning, and anger. Furthermore, optimism should always couple with truth and facts. This is a mature and honest optimism.

Optimism is hope for the future, but that hope comes from action – reaching out to someone in need, shining forth with a welcoming face, asking our legislators for the change that will make the world better. If I lift my head up to do my bits to make the world nicer, then I can carry on with the hope that enough others are doing the same. Optimism is my culture and my responsibility. I can’t give it up, nor do I ever want to.


(Credit for the de Tocqueville quote and more background for this post must be given to this excellent article from The Atlantic).



Seychelles Mama

16 thoughts on “I Won’t Give Up My American Optimism

  1. Kirstie

    American optimism is something I took for granted until I moved abroad, and the longer I spend abroad, the more glad I am that this is one of our prominent traits (especially because Australians can be very cynical – often in a refreshing way, but it’s occasionally frustrating). This post filled me with pride. I love the way we Americans look at the world!

    1. Cristin Post author

      I do too. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s one of the things I love most about Americans.

    1. Cristin Post author

      It’s so ingrained in the culture – it’s always interesting to unearth these things that we take for granted. 🙂

  2. Seychellesmama

    This is a wonderful post. I too am wired the same way. Perhaps that was enhanced from my time living in America at still an impressionable age (17-20). I also struggle with dealing with the darker sides of life and have often found myself avoiding news articles if the headlines upset me!! You’re so right in your conclusion of mature optimism, to me that’s a great way to be. I love hat you don’t want to give up your optimism….why should you!!!
    Loved reading this thanks so much for sharing it with #myexpatfamily

    1. Cristin Post author

      Thanks for having me again!
      My husband also spent those formative years in the U.S., and I believe it changed his worldview, so definitely possible! Being a parent also makes you want to avoid a lot of the bad news, too, I think.

  3. Nicola Sutcliffe

    really enjoyed this! as a brit living in Australia I find the optimism of the Aussies both refreshing and, sometimes, superficial simultaneously! I find the Brits’ pessimism depressing yet sometimes more realistic…So I think I sit in the middle.. I’m definitely more of an optimist as a rule but like you mention, i think its really important to find a healthy optimistic balance because otherwise we can be in for a rude awakening for some of the darker parts of life.

Comments are closed.