The Associated Press recently went looking for optimism in this place called America and found little as this country slides deeper and deeper into both a recession and depression.

America the beautiful has become America the worried, America the once was and America that may not recover.

The American psyche is, at best, wounded and morale is in the pits.

Writes Pauline Arrillaga:

Even folks in the Optimist Club are having a tough time toeing an upbeat line these days. Eighteen members of the volunteer organization’s Gilbert, Ariz., chapter have gathered, a few days before this nation’s 232nd birthday, to focus on the positive: Their book drive for schoolchildren and an Independence Day project to place American flags along the streets of one neighborhood.

They beam through the Pledge of Allegiance, applaud each other’s good news — a house that recently sold despite Arizona’s down market, and one member’s valiant battle with cancer. "I didn’t die," she says as the others cheer.

But then talk turns to the state of the Union, and the Optimists become decidedly bleak.

They use words such as "terrified," "disgusted" and "scary" to describe what one calls "this mess" we Americans find ourselves in. Then comes the list of problems constituting the mess: a protracted war, $4-a-gallon gas, soaring food prices, uncertainty about jobs, an erratic stock market, a tougher housing market, and so on and so forth.

One member’s son is serving his second tour in Iraq. Another speaks of a daughter who’s lost her job in the mortgage industry and a son in construction whose salary was slashed. Still another mentions a friend who can barely afford gas.

Joanne Kontak, 60, an elementary school lunch aide inducted just this day as an Optimist, sums things up like this: "There’s just entirely too much wrong right now."

Happy birthday, America? This year, we’re not so sure.

The nation’s psyche is battered and bruised, the sense of pessimism palpable. Young or old, Republican or Democrat, economically stable or struggling, Americans are questioning where they are and where they are going. And they wonder who or what might ride to their rescue.

These are more than mere gripes, but rather an expression of fears — concerns reflected not only in the many recent polls that show consumer confidence plummeting, personal happiness waning and more folks worrying that the country is headed in the wrong direction, but also in conversations happening all across the land.