The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For a rich country, America is unusually religious and optimistic

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The differences between America and other nations have long been a subject of fascination and study for social scientists, dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French political thinker who described the United States as “exceptional.”

Nearly 200 years later, Americans’ emphasis on individualism and work ethic stands out in surveys of people around the world. When Pew Research Center surveyed people in 44 countries last spring, 57 percent of Americans disagreed with the statement “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a higher percentage than most other nations and far above the global median of 38 percent.

Americans also stand out for their religiosity and optimism, especially when compared with other relatively wealthy countries.

In general, people in richer nations are less likely than those in poorer nations to say religion plays a very important role in their lives. But Americans are more likely than their counterparts in economically advanced nations to deem religion very important. More than half (54 percent) of Americans said religion was very important in their lives, much higher than the share of people in Canada (24 percent), Australia (21 percent) and Germany (21 percent), the next three wealthiest economies we surveyed from 2011 through 2013.

People in richer nations tend to place less emphasis on the need to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values than people in poorer countries do. While the share of Americans holding that view is far lower than in poorer nations like Indonesia and Ghana (each 99 percent), the U.S. stands out when compared with people in other economically advanced nations. In the U.S., 53 percent say belief in God is a prerequisite for being moral and having good values, much higher than the 23 percent in Australia and 15 percent in France, according to Pew Research's study of 39 nations between 2011 and 2013.

Americans are also more upbeat than people in other wealthy nations when asked how their day is going. While Pew Research asks this question to help respondents get more comfortable with the interviewer, it provides a glimpse into people's moods and reveals a slightly negative correlation between those saying the day is a good one and per capita gross domestic product. About four-in-ten Americans (41 percent) described their day as a “particularly good day,” a much higher share than those in Germany (21 percent), the UK (27 percent) and Japan (8 percent).

This post was originally published on Pew Research Center’s Fact Tank blog