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Majority in U.S. see silver lining

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Yes, these are uneasy times. Americans are livid about gas prices, ambivalent lawmakers and the cost of groceries. They fret about terrorism and climate change as shrill news coverage ramps up their fears.

But a certain amount of national optimism and positive spirituality is intact, despite it all.

"Most still see America as the land of opportunity," said a survey released by Rasmussen Reports.

It found that a majority - 55 percent - believe "that just about anyone who really wants to work can find a job in the United States." Less than a third disagreed with the idea.

"By a similar margin, 54 percent to 28 percent, Americans believe that just about anyone brought up in poverty can achieve a middle class lifestyle. And, by a 48 percent to 33 percent margin, Americans say that a middle class person can get rich without breaking the law," the survey said.

"While Americans generally see opportunities for all, only 36 percent say that anyone with good high school grades can find enough grants and loans to go to college. A modest plurality, 42 percent, disagree."

Men were more optimistic than women on all four questions, and the opinions of blacks and whites showed "little difference."

The majority of Republicans take the optimistic view on all questions; Democrats are evenly divided on whether anyone can get a job, whether middle-class people can get rich and whether the impoverished can improve their lot.

The middle class itself appears to be alive and well. The survey found that 50 percent overall consider themselves to be part of the middle class. Another 13 percent say they are among the upper middle class, 24 percent say they are in the lower middle class, 9 percent say they are "poor" and 1 percent say they are "rich."

The June 20-21 survey of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of three percentage points.

The nation's spiritual side also seems healthy despite troubled times, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,556 adults, released by the Pew Research Center on June 23.

The findings, which plumbed religious practices and attitudes, revealed that 92 percent believe in God, while three-quarters believe in heaven.

The survey, which was conducted from May to August 2007, had a margin of error of less than one percentage point.

The sunny side of life also has attracted the scientific community. Humans may be hard-wired to be optimistic, say New York University researchers, who used magnetic resonance imaging to identify a specific brain function "that may generate the human tendency to be optimistic."

This "optimistic bias," the researchers found, influences people for the better.

"As humans, we expect to live longer and be more successful than average, and we underestimate our likelihood of getting a divorce or having cancer," the study said.

The researchers pinpointed an area of the brain that "lit up" during the imaging process when participants were asked to compare positive events, like winning an award, to something negative, like a failed romance.

"Activation of the rostral anterior cingulate was correlated with trait optimism, with more optimistic participants showing greater activity in this region when imagining future positive events," said psychologist Tali Sharot, one of the researchers.

The team found that participants were more likely to expect positive things to happen closer in the future than negative events, and to imagine them "with greater vividness."

The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in October in the scientific journal Nature.

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