Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. A couple years ago, I got to be good friends with Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Grit. We decided to make a podcast together; we called it No Stupid Questions, and it became the first spinoff in the Freakonomics Radio Network. “So,” you may ask, “How’s it going?” Yeah, not bad! Today, No Stupid Questions gets more than a million listens every month. If you are one of those million: thank you! And if you’re not — well, we plainly haven’t made our case yet. Perhaps today’s episode will change your mind. You are about to hear a new episode of No Stupid Questions made especially for our Freakonomics Radio listeners. Every week on No Stupid Questions, we try to answer a question like: “If everybody hates meetings, why do we have so many of them?” Or: “When is it okay to tell a lie?” Or: “How can you stop comparing yourself to other people?” Some of these questions come from listeners; some are just rattling around in Angela’s head or my head. In any case, Angela and I love having these conversations and if you enjoy hearing them, I have good news: you can get No Stupid Questions on any podcast app, for free, just like Freakonomics Radio. I hope you’ll do that. Thanks for listening, and Happy New Year!
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Angela DUCKWORTH: They really want to complain, and all you want to do is dance around them in a jig of joy.
Stephen DUBNER: Oh, that’s exactly what I did last night. So, you’re saying that was a bad thing?
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DUBNER: Angela, question here from a listener named Christina. She writes to say: “As we all know, there are those who see the glass as half-empty and those who see the glasses as half-full. Then there are those like me, who see it not only as half-full, but as reason to celebrate. I wake up most mornings happy and, honestly, feel kind of excited about my day.” I have to say, I’m starting to wonder here if Christina is really Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, “Girlfriend! Let’s go out!” I absolutely identify with her. Completely.
DUBNER: Christina continues, “I am familiar with the idea that most people have a set range for their resting state of happiness, to which they eventually return, almost regardless of what life events befall them. And I’ve come to believe that I am just blessed with a very high level. It’s not like nothing bad has ever happened to me. I am a middle-aged woman. I’ve gone through the deaths of those I love, divorces, tough financial times, etc. But especially now in my more mature years, I always seem to return to a place of joy. Until recently, I figured I had just won the lottery in this respect. I mean, isn’t feeling good a natural goal of being human? It motivates, and sustains, and allows us to direct goodwill toward others too. However,” she writes — you knew there was a “however.”
DUCKWORTH: There’s going to be a “but.” There’s got to be.
DUBNER: Everybody’s got a big “but,” as they like to say. “However, the other day,” Christina writes, “I came across the idea of ‘toxic positivity’ and was quite taken aback. Is it possible to have too much optimism and joy in my life?” You can just feel the air going out of Christina’s bouncy, joyful balloon. So, Angie, I may be bringing this question to the wrong person, because you are a proponent of what is literally called ‘positive psychology,’ but I’ll ask anyway: is it possible to have too much positivity?
DUCKWORTH: Christina — she’s going to bounce right back no matter what we say, by the way.
DUBNER: But you want to smack her down for a minute?
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, you’d be the one to rain on this parade. I would just be like, “Let’s get more streamers! This is amazing!” And we can rain a little bit on this, but I do believe it’s great to be a happy and optimistic person.
DUBNER: Now, there is a condition called hypomania, correct? Which, I assume, is too much darn happiness?
DUCKWORTH: Well, coincidentally, I’ve been talking about hypomania a lot with Marty Seligman. Marty Seligman, my Ph.D. advisor and a world-renowned psychologist, has come to the tentative hypothesis that history is changed for the better by the hypomanic. So, what is hypomania? Stephen, you’ve heard of “mania,” right? As in manic depression?
DUBNER: Even I have heard of mania.
DUCKWORTH: Even you. Okay. Well, this extreme form of happiness, when it reaches what clinical psychologists would say is a pathological level of happiness, is not only feeling like you’re on top of the world, but unfortunately — and this is why therapists think it’s dysfunctional — is that you are talking without stop in a way that people can’t follow you. You have no need to sleep, and therefore you don’t sleep. You are also — and this is maybe the worst part of being in a manic episode — you are also taking ridiculous risks. Basically it’s a complete lack of impulse control. You might decide that it would be a really good idea to take all your clothes off and run around the block and see what that’s like, and you would just do it. And that’s what an extreme manic episode is. By the way, mania tends to cycle in and out with the opposite: depression. That’s the origin of the term “bipolar,” manic depression. “Hypo” — meaning “less than” or “low levels” — “hypomania” is a lower, milder form of this state of joy. And what Marty is especially interested in is stable hypomania. So, not just a one-month state or a two-month state, but just dispositionally being high-energy — so, you are sleeping, but maybe not as much as most people — and cheerful, and optimistic, and all the rest.
DUBNER: So, before we go forward with Christina’s concerns about toxic positivity, I want to go back to a couple of things that Christina wrote that I found interesting. She wrote, “I’m familiar with the idea that most people have a set range for their resting state of happiness, to which they eventually return, almost regardless of what life events befall them.” Is that true?
DUCKWORTH: That is true. There is this kind of center of gravity to our mood states. However, it’s a center of gravity that can shift. So, if you think about your childhood, and you’re like, “You know what? I always was a little bit of a melancholy kid” — it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the same center of gravity, in terms of your mood states as you move on and as things happen to you. So, yes, there is some equilibrium that we return to, but that equilibrium itself can change.
DUBNER: Okay, so Christina’s correct, largely, in that statement.
DUBNER: Here’s another one, though, I just want to run past you. She wrote, “Isn’t feeling good a natural goal of being human?” I think it’s a nice idea, but would you agree that that’s a natural goal, from a psychological perspective, at least?
DUCKWORTH: I think she actually is more right than wrong there. Every language in the world, and every history, and every philosophy, and every religion, has talked about happiness and its opposite: despair. So, the universality of this is, I think, indicative of the fact that we all know what it’s like to feel good, and we all know it’s like to feel bad, and all of us would like to feel good more than we feel bad. I remember having a conversation with Danny Kahneman, the Nobel laureate, about optimism and happiness, and he said that if there were a fairy godmother that only granted you one wish for your newborn child, absolutely, you would ask for optimism/joy. Those aren’t exactly the same thing, but they’re highly correlated, and they’re very causally interrelated. And I think this idea of being somebody who — you know, “The glass is half-full, and it is full of something I like, and what’s in your glass? I’m sure it’s great.” I think, overall, the reason why we want that for our children and for ourselves is that it is the end in itself. Many philosophers have said that the pursuit of human action is happiness.
DUBNER: So, if indeed it is human to seek out happiness, we get to Christina’s dilemma. And what I find interesting about her question is this underlying assumption that sounds close to guilt — as if her “toxic positivity” is necessarily numbing or blinding her to the real concerns of the day. So, I guess the first question would be, can’t you have both? I’ve learned from my friend Angela Duckworth, that instead of either/or, both/and is a really good option.
DUCKWORTH: Both/and is always the right option. You know, Christina talks about going through the deaths of those she loves, divorces — plural, I noted — tough financial times. It’s not that she’s living a Pollyanna life and nothing terrible happens to her. I’m guessing she knows what it’s like to feel sadness, grief, loss, insecurity, jealousy, anxiety, worry.
DUBNER: You’re bumming me out just saying those words, I have to say. No, I’m serious.
DUBNER: I feel my shoulders slumping.
DUCKWORTH: Or hunching.
DUBNER: I’m doing both. I’m so brought down by that list. I’m hunching and slumping.
DUCKWORTH: Both/and! I think that it is not only universal to seek good days and not bad days; it’s not only universal to want to be happy and want to be unhappy less; it is also universal to experience positive and negative emotion. And here’s, actually, a fun fact from the scientific literature that was really kind of shocking when it debuted a few decades ago: for a long time, psychologists thought that unhappiness and happiness were almost just the photo negatives of each other. Like, if you’re unhappy, you’re not happy. But it turns out that the correlation between positive emotions and negative emotions is only -0.3. In other words, if it were truly the case that being happy was simply the opposite of being unhappy, you would actually be seeing a correlation of -1. And what this suggests is that human beings are fully capable of feeling — maybe even in the same moment — some happy emotions, some negative emotions, mixed emotions. But one thing that Christina noted is that not only does she seem to experience more positive than negative — so, she has a center of gravity more in these positive mood states than these negative ones — but she also said something about having a lot of stability around that. And when we study this scientifically, we not only want to know the center of gravity of somebody’s mood state, but also: how much variation is there? And what we find with people who are what we would call “neurotic” is that you have rollercoaster emotions. You have a lot of variability around that mean. And so, what I’m hearing from Christina in her letter is that she’s got a high mood center of gravity and she hovers around there pretty stably.
DUBNER: I will say, Christina’s email did make me examine my own state of positivity.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, what about you, Stephen?
DUBNER: So here’s the thing about Christina’s question: I do love encountering ideas that literally make you stop and think, and this one did. It made me reflect on some of the work we’ve been doing on Freakonomics Radio the last couple years about negativity — about the power of bad, for instance, this psychological notion that bad things have more salience than good things. We did another piece, recently, on the power of negative media, which contributes to all sorts of problems on the personal and institutional levels. So I guess I have been paying attention to negativity and pessimism, and judging it to be potentially harmful. And I do feel I’ve got a positive disposition, personally — maybe not quite as positive as Christina, or you, but overall quite positive. I have a few friends who I stereotype as “Eeyores,” basically — and who, if I’m given the choice between seeing them one evening and staying in and reading a book, I’m going to stay in and read the book, because I don’t want to swim in that negativity for a whole night. Life’s too short, and too hard; why make it harder than it already is? But Christina’s email did make me think about the potential downsides to this pursuit of happiness and maybe a state of what she calls “toxic positivity.” I know there’s some literature, including by a colleague of yours, Maurice Schweitzer —.
DUCKWORTH: Same department, even.
DUBNER: — Who has written about the notion of happiness being associated with naivete, right? I know there’s also research that shows that, in a competitive setting, positivity, or a willingness to collaborate, can be seen as a sign of weakness. So, you can see in the business sphere, being positive might come across as something that could be exploited. I think another fear is that if you seem too happy — toxically happy — it may be an indication to others that you are low on empathy. And I believe there’s psychological research about that, as well.
DUCKWORTH: June Gruber.
DUBNER: June Gruber, precisely. So, all of these checks on my happiness do lead me to wonder if, indeed, Christina is barking up just the right tree. On the other hand, if you do have the “problem” of being very, very happy, and you want to bring a little bit more, either empathy, or concern, into your life, certainly there is — for everyone, no matter which side of the scale you’re starting on — a golden mean. Isn’t that the real pursuit? Not to be happy all the time, but to find that golden mean where you can enjoy your life while acknowledging that, on any given day, there is unbelievable cruelty, and genocide, and other bad things?
DUCKWORTH: So, I’m going to sidestep for a moment, the question of the golden mean of happiness, the ideal number on a scale from zero to 10 — maybe it’s not 10? Is it eight? How about nine? I’m going to sidestep for a moment and just say: “What is going on with dispositionally-happy people?”
DUBNER: You say that with the tone as if you don’t understand it. “What’s going on with these people — these people who are just like me?”
DUCKWORTH: Well, I have to say that I have some familiarity with June Gruber’s research and Maurice’s, they’re colleagues and friends, and I also have some intrinsic interest in this. What’s going on with these dispositionally happy people who may be perceived by others to be naive, and who might be sometimes insensitive to people who are not in a very good mood at the time? I think it comes down to attention. What it is to be a dispositionally optimistic and happy person at the core is to have a kind of bias to pay attention to the good sides. Like, “Look, the glass is half-full.” It’s equally true to say that the glass is half-empty, but a dispositionally optimistic and joyful person has this attentional bias. That explains the naivete finding from Maurice Schweitzer. It’s like, “Hey, they’re looking over here. While they’re looking at the glass being half-full, we can exploit this blindness that they have. I’m going to sell them a horse.” This is also why it’s been shown that people get happier on average as we get older.
DUBNER: Until close to the end.
DUCKWORTH: Until close to the end. But well into your healthy, older adulthood, you reliably find that adults are happier than they were when they were younger. Now, why? Laura Carstensen’s research at Stanford would suggest that it’s because older adults tend to selectively look at the pretty picture and not the ugly picture. So, I think that this attentional engine that’s always filtering out our reality and then pushing our feelings around and our thoughts — attention is the gatekeeper for everything. I think that’s what’s really going on. And so then, when you ask me, “Well, what’s the golden mean?” I agree it surely can’t be the optimal life to ignore inequality, death, sadness, loss. We don’t want to be that person, even if we could be 10 out of 10 on happiness, because there’s something other than happiness, like character. But having a tilt in our attentional focus to sort of look all around, see the glass half-full, see it half-empty, but then, preferring to focus on the fact that it’s half-full — I think that’s pretty defensible.
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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about toxic positivity, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the topic. We told listeners to tweet us their views on the benefits and detriments of a positive mindset.
A listener with the Twitter handle @baturmalone writes, “When someone complains about a problem, toxic positive people say things like, ‘Don’t worry about it. You gotta stay positive,’ or ‘You just have to push through/try harder,’ which only invalidates a person’s concerns and makes them feel worse.”
@HenderKevinson says, “My wife is an optimist. Which is great except when she’s backing out of parking spots because she’s convinced she’s not going to back into the wall, or a shopping cart, or another car. Optimists have higher insurance rates.”
HenderKevinson, your observations are acute! Research from the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention concludes that the existence of robust optimism “appears to be strongly related to an exaggerated sense of control,” which can “decrease the probability of appropriate anticipatory avoidance responses” — A.K.A. checking to see if there’s a shopping cart behind you before backing out of a parking space.
And finally, @twistf*** writes: “Expect the best, prepare for the worst. It’s more work than having blind faith that everything will work out or absolute defeatism that it’s not worth bothering. It’s a blend of the better part of each. Let’s call it optipesm.”
Wise words, Twistf***, wise words.
If you’d like your thoughts to appear on an upcoming show, follow our Twitter account, @NSQ_Show. Now, back to Stephen and Angela and their conversation about whether it’s damaging to live a life where you constantly see the glass as half-full.
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DUBNER: One could imagine that the choice set is even larger than, “It’s half-full. It’s half-empty.” It could be that Christina, or you, or maybe even me on a good day, could say, “Not only is the glass half-full, but I should find another glass, because I’ve got so much happiness, I’m going to fill up two.” It’s not so much, “Well, we’re looking at the same picture and we’re seeing slightly different versions of it.” It reminds me of this book by Barbara Ehrenreich, the journalist who’s most well-known for a book called Nickel and Dimed, which was an amazing piece of reporting about low-wage work in America. And this was probably 15 or 20 years ago, so it was quite prescient. But she wrote another book called Bright-Sided, which is a play on “blindsided,” and it came about because she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was suddenly being assaulted with all these optimistic and inspirational messages about, you know, “Keep your head up. Everything’s going to be okay.” And she was more like, “Hey, shut up. I got cancer here.” The book was called “a knockdown of America’s love affair with positive thinking.” And, it’s a bit of a knockdown of the kind of work that you do.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and very explicitly of positive psychology.
DUBNER: But I definitely empathize with that view. And I definitely empathize with the idea that if someone is going around being happy all the time, that it’d be very easy to say, “When people are happy and they’re relatively successful in their lives” — and look, let’s not lie, you and I, we’ve both had a lot of good things happen in our lives. We’ve had good health. We’ve had good education. We enjoy our work. We have families that we love and maybe even love us back sometimes. And so, I think it’s very easy from the outside to say, “Well, of course, you’re happy. You’ve got those things working.” So, what do you say to that argument?
DUCKWORTH: That happiness is a privilege? I think that’s an excellent point. But, as many philosophers have pointed out, you do not have to be a rich person to control where you pay attention. It’s not to negate that some people just have worse lives, objectively speaking. But I think, at the same time — both/and, Stephen, right? — the optimists of the world tend not to be hanging out on their couches just staring blissfully into their half-filled glasses. They’re starting non-profits, and becoming teachers, and so forth. I really do think it’s both/and. You can acknowledge that there are objective disadvantages, and also say, “I’m going to look at the good side, too.”
DUBNER: You want a little data on optimism versus pessimism in America?
DUCKWORTH: Absolutely. Yes, please.
DUBNER: This is from a 2013 survey by TIME magazine of around 800 people. So, let’s just say it’s not particularly scientific, but anyway, the question was: “Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?” Do you have any guesses before I give you the numbers?
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to say that 90 percent of people consider themselves optimists.
DUBNER: Good God! You’re optimistic about the optimism survey! I should also say, you could answer, “somewhere in-between.” There’s also “don’t know” or “refused.” If somebody refused, I would put them down as a pessimist, personally. Again, let’s just acknowledge that this is extremely unscientific. According to this poll, 50 percent said they were optimists. Forty-three percent said they’re somewhere in between. Only 4 percent said they’re pessimists.
DUCKWORTH: Fifty to four. So, it’s 10 to one.
DUBNER: Fifty to four!
DUCKWORTH: Hey, that’s about the same as my estimate of 90 percent, by the way.
DUBNER: Now, that shocks me.
DUCKWORTH: What did you think?
DUBNER: I think maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd, because I know a lot of pessimists.
DUBNER: We’ve been doing a lot of episodes on Freakonomics Radio this last year about America. I came to this conclusion over the course of many years of reporting and writing that whenever we would look at a policy idea or solution for whatever it is — universal childcare, the way healthcare is paid for, and so on — the solution almost always was, “Well, just copy the Danish model, or copy of the Hong Kong model, or whatever.” And when you start to look at how you can try to overlay a solution like that, the answer was usually: you can’t, because we’re just too different. And when you look at the U.S. on many, many dimensions — culture, history, politics, etc. — we’re just a major outlier. Along those lines, I do wonder if we are an outlier as optimists as well. I’d like to read you a couple sentences from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s mind-bogglingly interesting book written in the 1830s, from the perspective of a French visitor. He wrote, “They” — Americans — “have a lively faith in the perfectibility of man. They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene in which nothing is or ought to be permanent. And they admit that what appears to them to be good today may be superseded by something better tomorrow.” So, it really does make me wonder if what you and I are talking about now is really not optimism in the human, but optimism in the American human?
DUCKWORTH: It’s an excellent question. I don’t know the answer. I’m guessing there have to be national differences in optimism. We know for sure that there are international differences in happiness, because for some years now, there are these annual happiness polls that happen around the world and you can find out things, like Denmark and Finland are especially happy places. The one that’s coming to mind that I remember teaching was that Togo was the least happy country on the planet. So, we know happiness varies by national culture. My guess is that optimism would too. It may be more pronounced in the United States. Benjamin Franklin, he had this parable of the handsome and deformed leg. Have you heard of this parable? So, you know, Ben Franklin —.
DUBNER: Him, I’ve heard of.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was going to say, I’m at Penn, so we quote Ben Franklin a lot. So, I can read to you this little story. Franklin is speaking about pessimists here: “An old philosophical friend of mine was grown from experience and carefully avoided any intimacy with such people. He had, like other philosophers, a thermometer to show him the heat of the weather to mark when it was likely to prove good or bad, but there being no instrument invented to discover at first sight, this unpleasing disposition in a person” — that of being a pessimist — “he, for that purpose made use of his legs. One of which was remarkably handsome. The other, by some accident, crooked and deformed. If a stranger, at the first interview, regarded his ugly leg more than his handsome one, he doubted him. If he spoke of it and took no notice of the handsome leg, that was sufficient to determine my philosopher to have no further acquaintance with him. Everybody has not this two-legged instrument, but everyone, with a little attention, may observe signs of that carping, fault-finding disposition and take the same resolution of avoiding the acquaintance of those infected with it. I, therefore, advise those critical, querulous, discontented, unhappy people that if they wish to be respected and be loved by others and happy in themselves, they should leave off looking at the ugly leg.” I’ll stop there, but obviously, this is Ben Franklin — well before June Gruber’s and Maurice Schweitzer’s research — saying that, “I think what’s going on here is attention.” And, you know, he’s famously a founder of this country and perhaps not only somebody who shaped our culture, but also, the fact that we keep quoting him and keep his parables alive, maybe it is a sort of particularly American — I won’t say uniquely American — but maybe particularly optimistic American bias.
DUBNER: I can imagine one other large reason why America may be more optimistic than many other countries, which is that we have, overall, a very strong religious belief in this country, and a very strong belief in an afterlife. I mean, if you want to think about the ultimate example of a happy ending, that’s what heaven is. And if you want to think about a reason to be optimistic, it would be the belief that your ending will be good — will be better than now. So, I wouldn’t be shocked if America is indeed near the top of the optimism scale, if it’s related in some significant measure to that wide belief in heaven.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe. I don’t know. You have religious tradition that emphasizes that things will ultimately be very good, but it also may be itself a product of a bias to want to see that kind of thing — hence the difficulty of studying culture, right? It’s very hard to do this scientifically.
DUBNER: What you’re saying now relates back to what Franklin is suggesting. Franklin was essentially saying, “Smile and you will feel happy.” And now you’re saying that if you tell yourself a certain kind of story, it may make you feel happy or optimistic, but it may not have a basis in the reality. But at the end of the day, does it matter?
DUCKWORTH: I think there could be virtuous cycles here, where the causal arrows go every which way. Maybe, when you’re a happy person, like Franklin and maybe Christina are saying, people are attracted to you. They’re drawn to you. Maybe, if you have people who are drawn to you, you have even more reason to be happy. There are these virtuous cycles, and there’s a lot of very good data now on the causal influence of happiness on future outcomes. So, we do know, at least, that the causal arrows go from happiness to, for example, doing better at work. And then, if you’re doing better at work, you can just imagine — and there’s research on this too — that makes you happier. So, this upward spiral is real. But when you go back to Christina’s worry: can you be too optimistic? Can this get toxic? If we go back to this attention hypothesis that even Franklin had centuries ago: if you are ignoring other people’s pain, if you are ignoring the gradient of privilege, if you are kind of tone deaf — for example, a roommate comes home, and they’ve just had a sh*t day, and they really want to complain, and all you want to do is dance around them in a jig of joy, that can be bad.
DUBNER: That’s exactly what I did last night. So, you’re saying that was a bad thing?
DUCKWORTH: But look, both/and, right? It’s both possible to have a high center of gravity when it comes to positive emotion and to be pretty stable around that, and I think it’s possible to allow your attentional field to encompass these other things.
DUBNER: So, in other words, die-hard optimists, constant optimists, should understand that there may be occasions where, even if you don’t feel it, you should tone it down a little bit for the sake of others. And that pessimists should maybe jack it up a little bit, because it’s a free pass toward improving your outcomes. Is that the advice?
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to give the advice my way, which is that, rather than thinking about toning down your behavior and your voice, and trying to get to something which is going to be good for everyone, I want to actually focus on attention. I think that if you diagnose yourself, as I guess most Americans apparently do, as an optimist, then you might want to make sure you are at least noticing when the glass is half-full, and for whom the glass is half-full, and who doesn’t have a glass at all, and who has two glasses. So, just attention-wise, make sure you’re not neglecting a part of the bigger picture, even if you’re going to go back to the good parts. That’s my recommendation for optimists. My recommendation for pessimists is: again, notice your attention. What part of the picture are you obsessively dwelling on? Have you failed to notice that the glass is half-full? Have you failed to notice other things that might actually improve your mood? And I would also draw the attention of the optimists and the pessimists listening here to the reality of these cycles, because I really do believe there are virtuous and vicious cycles; being unhappy, being negative, and always being hyper-critical can really be a spiral downward. If you do pay attention to that, you could say, “Hey, look over here, it’s this virtuous upward spiral. I think I’m going to join that one.”
DUBNER: Has this conversation about the possibility of too much optimism dimmed your own optimism, even one watt?
DUCKWORTH: Not even half a watt, Stephen.
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Now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
Angela describes “pathological mania” as a symptom of bipolar disorder, and she notes that during manic episodes, a person may have no need to sleep and could lose all impulse control. This sort of episode is generally tied to bipolar I disorder — although individuals with this illness may not experience these exact symptoms. Less severe, hypomanic episodes are common with bipolar II disorder. Hypomanic episodes and periods of depression are also associated with cyclothymic disorder. You can find more information in the show notes.
Also, Angela recalls that Togo was, at one point, the least happy country on the planet. In 2015, the West African nation indeed ranked dead last — 158th out of all 158 countries measured in the World Happiness Report, which uses data from the Gallup World Poll and the World Risk Poll. However, in the 2021 report, Togo ranked 136th. The change may be attributed to a steady drop in infant mortality and an increased number of children receiving education. Afghanistan is currently ranked as the least happy country in the world, with Zimbabwe right above it. The happiest country in the world, as Angela suggested, is Finland, with Denmark as a close second. The United States sits at No. 19 on the list — a slight drop from its rank as No. 15 in the 2015 report.
Finally, Stephen surmises that the United States may be one of the most optimistic countries in the world. According to a 2020 survey from the market research firm Ipsos, this is true. Americans ranked fifth out of 28 participating countries when it came to optimism about their nation’s future. China was ranked as the most optimistic country and Italy was ranked as the most pessimistic country.
That’s it for the fact-check.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This special episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas and mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Morgan Levey, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. The No Stupid Questions theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. You can follow Freakonomics Radio and No Stupid Questions on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations, information and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
- June Gruber, professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Colorado, Boulder.
- Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and public policy at Stanford University.
- Barbara Ehrenreich, author and activist.
- Alexis de Tocqueville (deceased), French sociologist and political theorist.
- Benjamin Franklin (deceased), founding father of the United States of America.
- “Is Happiness U-Shaped Everywhere? Age and Subjective Well-Being in 145 Countries,” by David G. Blanchflower (Journal of Population Economics, 2021).
- “Views on the Afterlife: Majorities of U.S. Adults Say They Believe in Heaven, Hell,” by the Pew Research Center (2021).
- “Time to Ditch ‘Toxic Positivity,’ Experts Say: ‘It’s Okay Not to Be Okay,’” by Allyson Chiu (The Washington Post, 2020).
- “Thanks for Nothing: Expressing Gratitude Invites Exploitation by Competitors,” by Jeremy A. Yip, Cindy Chan, Kelly Kiyeon Lee, and Alison Wood Brooks (Harvard Business School Working Papers, 2018).
- “Bliss Is Ignorance: How the Magnitude of Expressed Happiness Influences Perceived Naiveté and Interpersonal Exploitation,” by Alixandra Barasch, Emma E. Levine, and Maurice E. Schweitzer (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2016).
- “Seeing the World Through Rose-Colored Glasses: People Who Are Happy and Satisfied with Life Preferentially Attend to Positive Stimuli,” by Hannah Raila, Brian J Scholl, and June Gruber (Emotion, 2015).
- “Not As Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion Is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance,” by Hillary C. Devlin, Jamil Zaki, Desmond C. Ong, and June Gruber (PLOS One, 2014).
- “U.S. Religious Landscape Study,” by the Pew Research Center (2014).
- “Do You Consider Yourself an Optimist or a Pessimist?” (TIME, 2013).
- “Emotional Aging: Recent Findings and Future Trends,” by Susanne Scheibe and Laura L. Carstensen (The Journals of Gerontology, 2009).
- Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009).
- Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001).
- “The Optimism Bias and Traffic Accident Risk Perception,” by D. M. DeJoy (Accident Analysis & Prevention, 1989).
- Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835).
- “The Deformed and Handsome Leg,” (Benjamin Franklin Papers at the National Archives, 1780).
- “Hypomania,” by Cleveland Clinic.
- “Bipolar Disorder,” by Mayo Clinic.
- World Happiness Report.