The optimists are coming out of the woodwork. Whether it's the market's resiliency in recent days or just the cathartic nature of a group hug, the media is beginning to wax positively on the world's dour economic state.

AOL is hopping on the bandwagon, initiating a poll over the weekend to gauge what consumers feel is the biggest benefit of this painful recession.

The initial results may surprise you. At the very least, they surprised me.

Falling Gas Prices


Bigger Sales


Lower Interest Rates


Cheaper Homes


Source: AOL (based on a current total of 104,819 votes so far).

These are the only four choices in the poll, so as investors we shouldn't bellyache about "ridiculously low stock valuations" not making the cut. However, even for a consumer-facing poll, one would think that the insane discounting taking place at retailers this holiday season would be more of a pocketbook godsend than spending a few coins less to get to the mall.

In fact, given that so many Americans are swamped in debt, one would think that lower interest rates would be a bigger trigger for excitement. You have to be a real heavy-duty commuter for your fuel costs to lap your car payments, auto insurance tab, and maintenance bills.

At least the AOL voters got it right in placing cheaper homes at the bottom of the priority list. Prices will likely have to head even lower before consumers start buying houses again as long as we have a glut of unsold homes on the market. I guess Wall Street doesn't see it that way, as shares of homebuilders like Lennar (NYSE:LEN) and D.R. Horton (NYSE:DHI) have more than doubled since bottoming out two weeks ago. I wouldn't even go there with other people's money.

Getting back to my shock at "bigger sales" being such a poor poll candidate, have you seen the deals out there? When even upscale jeweler Blue Nile (NASDAQ:NILE) is offering daily gem discounts, you have to look hard to find a retailer that isn't marking down merchandise.

Discounting is usually a death sentence to retailers, especially high-end chains, but maybe it's different this time. Williams-Sonoma (NYSE:WSM) actually raised its guidance last week. Comps at Saks (NYSE:SKS) fell by 5.2% last month, but that came after a 25.7% surge in November of 2007.

So maybe this won't be a brutal holiday season for retailers after all. With crude oil prices down to less than a third of their all-time highs, maybe retailers are benefitting from cheaper transportation costs and the added incentive of cheaper gas-guzzling trips to and from the mall.

OK, pollsters. You win. The drop in gas prices is the real silver lining of the recession, but only because it provides a golden opportunity for retail.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.