Published: 2008-11-07

People can be differentiated to the extent that they have different expectancies about the achievement of their goals, and other future events.

Optimists have a generalised sense of confidence about the future, characterised by their broad expectancy that outcomes are likely to be positive.

Pessimists, on the other hand, have a generalised sense of doubt and hesitancy, characterised by the future anticipation of negative outcomes. So is it better to be an optimist or a pessimist?

7  Benefits of Being an Optimist

Positive psychology research has found many advantages of adopting an optimistic viewpoint. Below are some of them:

  • Optimists experience less distress than pessimists when dealing with difficulties in their lives. For example, they suffer much less anxiety and depression.
  • Optimists adapt better to negative events (including coronary artery bypass surgery, breast cancer, abortion, bone marrow transplantation and AIDS).
  • Optimism is conducive to problem-focused coping, humour, making plans, positive reframing (putting the situation in the best possible light) and, when the situation is uncontrollable, to accepting the situation’s reality. Optimists are capable of learning lessons from negative situations. Thus optimists have a coping advantage over pessimists.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, optimists don’t tend to use denial, whilst pessimists often attempt to distance themselves from the problem. Optimists are not simply people who stick their heads in the sand and ignore threats to their well-being. For example, they attend to health warnings and usually discover potentially serious problems earlier rather than later.
  • Optimists exert more continuous effort and tend not to give up, possibly assuming that the situation can be handled successfully in one way or another. Pessimists, on the other hand, are far more likely to anticipate disaster – and, as a result, are more likely to give up.
  • Optimists report more health-promoting behaviours (like eating a healthy diet or having regular medical check-ups) and enjoy better physical health than pessimists.
  • Optimists seem to be more productive in the work place. 

Moreover, 85% of the US presidential elections over the past century were won by the more optimistic candidate (which, does not necessarily, mean the best!). The conclusions of one insurance sales study contain a warning for pessimistic salespersons. Apparently, when the salespeople scoring in the top 10% in an optimism questionnaire were compared to those scoring in the bottom 10%, it transpired that the former sold 88% more insurance.

Can Optimism Be Learnt?

Quite simply – yes. Although there may well be a genetically inherited component to optimism, and early childhood experiences certainly shape our optimistic-pessimistic viewpoint, we can use several strategies to counter pessimism.

The first of these is a Disputing strategy, introduced by Martin Seligman in his best-seller Learned Optimism. We usually employ the skill of internal disputing when we are falsely accused of something by someone else. We think to ourselves, for example:

‘That’s not right. It’s him who is not listening, it’s not me. I always listen before reaching a conclusion’.

However, when we falsely accuse ourselves of something (e.g. not being capable of dealing with a difficult situation) we don’t tend to dispute it. The key to success is careful monitoring and recognition of our thoughts. Once a negative thought is detected, we can consciously dispute that thought and try to look at possible alternative outcomes.

Changing and monitoring your Explanatory Style is another useful strategy. Explanatory Style refers to the way in which we explain the causes and influences of previous positive and negative events.

Pessimistic Explanatory Style means we use internal, stable and global explanations for bad events and external, unstable and specific explanations for good ones. People who use this style tend to appraise bad events in terms of personal failure.

Optimistic Explanatory Style, on the other hand, is characterised by external (leaving one’s self-esteem intact), unstable, and specific (depending on circumstances) explanations for bad events, and by the opposite pattern for good ones. The table below gives some examples of optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles.

Event Optimist would say: Pessimist would say:
Good event (e.g. passing an exam) Internal: I’ve done a great job.Stable: I am talented.Global: This was a good start to the exam season. The other ones should be easy too. External: Don’t know how this happened. It must’ve been luck.Unstable: Every dog has its day.Specific: So what? I can still fail the next one.
Bad event (e.g. failing an exam) External: The exam questions were simply terrible. Unstable: No problem, I’ll pass it next time round.Specific: Yesterday was my birthday after all. Internal: It’s all my fault, I haven’t prepared well.Stable: I am never going to pass this exam.Global: This is the end to my dreams, I’ll never become who I want to be.

Needless to say, Seligman recommends monitoring your automatic thoughts and attitudes and disputing pessimistic explanations.

During my lectures on this subject, having nearly sold optimism as well as the positive attribution style to my listeners, at this point I am usually met with a variation on the following question:

‘Surely you are not saying that blaming anyone else but yourself when things go wrong is a good idea?’.

This is a very good question. The research that I know of does not seem to tackle the impact of an optimistic explanatory style on those close to the optimists, nor does it report on whether optimism is associated with qualities such as self-centredness.

The Benefit of Being a Pessimist

There are some occasions when pessimism can do more to ensure the safety of your life. Optimistic thinking is associated with an underestimation of risks , so optimists are more likely to take part in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex or reckless driving. Optimism is also hardly desirable if, for example, a pilot is deciding whether a plane should take off during an ice-storm.

In the case of serious traumatic events (e.g. death, fire, flood or violent rape) optimists may not be well prepared and their beautiful, rosy world may be shattered into pieces (although optimists might be better equipped to rebuild it than pessimists).

What About Realism?

This is another difficult question to answer, simply because realism does not seem to be in fashion at the moment. Having carefully analysed the indexes of five major volumes on positive psychology, I found only one reference to this term.

If a principal motivation of a realist is to understand themselves and the world as it is and to maintain a consistent and accurate self-image, it would be common sense to assume that such a disposition could benefit from the strengths of both optimism and pessimism, whilst avoiding the pitfalls associated with both.

Ed Diener, one of the greatest researchers on happiness, writes:

‘…it might not be desirable for an individual to be too optimistic; perhaps people are better off if they are a mix of optimism and pessimism’.

We need more research in order to understand better what helps one to develop realism and what the implications of such choice are.

Perhaps our Western societies need some realists. Those who watch the news, feel for the suffering around the world and assume some responsibility for the causes and implications of this adversity. Those who may choose to do something about it, realistically estimating their minute chances of success.

Optimism, Hope and Positive Psychology

Hope is a construct which closely relates to optimism, although the two are not identical. Rick Snyder, one of the leading specialists in hope, represents it as an ability to conceptualise goals, find pathways to these goals despite obstacles and have the motivation to use those pathways. To put it more simply, we feel hope if we:

a) know what we want,
b) can think of a range of ways to get there and
c) start and keep on going.

It’s not hard to guess that being hopeful brings about many benefits. For example, we know that hope buffers against interfering, self-deprecatory thoughts and negative emotions, and is critical for psychological health. In the domain of physical health, we know that people who are hopeful focus more on the prevention of diseases (e.g. through exercising).

Athletes with higher levels of hope are more successful in their performance. Furthermore, based on research with college students, it appears that hope bears a substantial relationship to academic achievement.

Snyder and his colleagues emphasise a cognitive rather than an emotional approach to hope, claiming that positive emotions are the result of concluding that we are pursuing goals successfully. This means that they see hope as a goal-pursuit thinking that causes emotions. As often happens in psychology, many other researchers would not subscribe to this view, conceptualising hope as an emotion in itself.