Even groups with comparatively sunny outlooks — racial and ethnic minorities, the young and the nonreligious — are much more likely to say things will be the same or get worse than to predict a brighter future.
"Changes will come, and some of them are scary," says Kelly Miller, 22, a freshly minted University of Minnesota sports management grad.
She looks forward to some wonderful things, like 3D printers creating organs for transplant patients. But Miller envisions Americans in 2050 blindly relying on robots and technology for everything from cooking dinner to managing their money.
"It's taking away our free choice and human thought," she says. "And there's potential for government to control and regulate what this artificial intelligence thinks."
Overall, 54 percent of those surveyed expect American life to go downhill, while 23 percent think it will improve, according to a December survey from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Only 21 percent predict life will stay about the same. That minority may be onto something, however.
While no one can say what catastrophes or human triumphs are to come, contentment at a personal level has proven remarkably stable over the past four decades.
Interviews by the federally funded General Social Survey, one of the nation's longest-running surveys of social trends, show Americans' overall happiness as well as satisfaction with their jobs and marriages barely fluctuating since 1972. Those decades spanned the sexual revolution and the women's rights movement, race riots and civil rights advances, the resignation of one president and impeachment of another, wars from Vietnam through Afghanistan, the birth of the home computer and the smartphone, boom times and hard times.
Despite the recent shift toward negativity about the state of the nation, the portion of U.S. residents rating themselves very or pretty happy stayed around 9 out of 10.
"Most people evaluate their lives very stably from year to year," said Tom W. Smith, who has been director since 1980 of the GSS, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. "You don't want massive surges and falls in personal happiness, and the fact that we don't see that is reassuring."
The GSS, conducted once every two years, will send interviewers back into the field in 2014. The AP-NORC Center survey asked people to rate the change in American life during the period tracked by the GSS, from 1972 to 2012.
A majority — 54 percent — say life in America is worse today than four decades ago.
Those old enough to remember the early '70s are especially nostalgic, as are tea party supporters and people who live in the countryside. Those who say U.S. life has declined are more apt to name politics, the economy, moral values or changes in families as the biggest difference.
The 3 in 10 who think life is better are more likely to point to computers and technology as the big change. Racial and ethnic minorities are apt to cite domestic issues, including civil rights.