Although investors feel market volatility is here to stay for the foreseeable future, they are also feeling somewhat optimistic about their prospects, says a Merrill Lynch Wealth Management survey released today.

According to the Merrill Lynch Affluent Insights Survey, a poll of 1,000 affluent individuals, investors feel that market volatility is the new normal. Forty-four percent of affluent Americans, defined as those with investable assets of at least $250,000, feel that such fluctuations are not a passing phenomenon but here to stay.

But the affluent are also feeling optimistic because they are gaining control of their finances by paying down debt and decreasing their spending, Merrill Lynch says.

"A financial advisor can use this data to begin the conversation about a person's goals," says Ted Durkin, head of the affluent clients segment at Merrill Lynch. "It is important to remember that the risk is out there, but we have some bad times behind us, and investors can now plan to achieve their goals. People are trying to control those aspects they can control."

"With health-care costs and funding retirement weighing heavy on their minds, many affluent families are also faced with the added challenge of financially supporting a parent or adult-age child," says the survey.

A vast majority of those surveyed (94 percent) believe they are better prepared today to cope with economic uncertainty. Fifty-eight percent feel a greater sense of stability in their financial lives than they did one year ago, but 54 percent are still worried about the impact of the economy on their ability to meet their financial goals, and 50 percent are concerned about lingering unemployment.

"Affluent Americans' outlook for 2013 can best be described as cautiously optimistic -- with 30 percent feeling optimistic and 45 percent feeling hopeful about their financial situation," the survey says. Those 18 to 34 years of age have the most positive outlook; nearly two-thirds of them (62 percent) believe that their financial situations will improve in the next year.

This year, 30 percent of those surveyed described themselves as conservative investors, down from 36 percent a year ago and down from 50 percent two years ago.

Thirty-eight percent of middle-aged affluent people say they will have to pay for their children's entire college education, down from 48 percent just a year ago.

For three years, health-care costs have remained at the top of the list of issues that concern respondents: 77 percent are highly concerned about the cost. The second and third greatest concerns are retirement (which 68 percent of respondents cited) and being able to afford the lifestyle they want later in life (listed by 55 percent as a concern).

--Karen DeMasters