Optimism and Poverty in Africa: Adaptation or a Means to Survival?

Carol Graham


Recent research finds that higher levels of optimism and happiness are associated with other positive traits and behaviors, such as productivity in the labor market, better health, and support for democracy and markets.

We compare these findings to new survey data for Africa, in an attempt to understand these relationships in conditions of extreme adversity. We find unusual levels of optimism among the poorest and most insecure respondents there, in contrast to the other regions, where optimism is positively correlated with wealth and education. This suggests that optimism may play a positive role in the survival of the very poor in such adverse circumstances. Future research, based on data which allows us to control for individual specific character traits, is necessary to test whether this proposition has any explanatory power, or whether the findings merely reflect the ability of individuals to adjust their own expectations downward but maintain hope for their children. The poor’s optimism is positively correlated with preference for democracy but not with preference for markets. Attitudinal traits may be more important in respondents’ assessments of democracy as a system, while economic outcomes seem to be more important in respondents’ assessments of the market in a region where its operations are both incomplete and unpredictable.

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