Pessimism vs. Optimism: How Mindset Impacts Wellbeing

Pessimism vs optimismLife experiences are interpreted through our own internal filters.

How we explain events to ourselves (i.e., explanatory style) is a key factor in how we respond.

Pessimism, optimism, and realism represent three particularly salient and interconnected explanatory styles.

This article will describe these mindsets and their relationship to psychological health. Tips, books, quotes, and resources from PositivePsychology.com are also included. So please follow along as we inspect how our mindsets influence how we navigate our way through the world.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Pessimism in Psychology?

Pessimism is a type of explanatory style in which individuals “expect the disadvantageous outcome when facing events of unknown emotional impact” (Herwig et al., 2010, p. 789).

Humans consistently search for meaning to explain life events. When a person views situations from a pessimistic mindset, this is considered a negative bias (Dember, Martin, Hummer, Howe, & Melton, 1989).

Individuals who are pessimistic will often interpret negative events as internal, global, and stable; whereas positive events are often viewed as external, specific, and unstable (Gillham, Shatte, Reivich, & Seligman, 2001). These relationships are presented in Figure 1 below.

Explanatory style affects many aspects of life. For example, a person with a negative bias is less likely to feel resilient when dealing with stressors because they will feel a lack of personal control.

Viewing undesirable events as due to stable, internal causes has a negative impact on self-esteem (Gillham et al., 2001). In contrast, an optimistic disposition is associated with reduced depression and physical symptoms (Gillham et al., 2001).

Importantly, however, an association between pessimism and negative outcomes is not always straightforward, as it is possible to feel simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic about a situation. Moreover, defensive pessimism may actually be beneficial in some situations.

Figure 1: Relationship between explanatory style, event, and perception

Relationship between Explanatory Style, Event, and Perception

 

Pessimism vs Optimism and Realism

Pessimism vs OptimismWhile studies have often reported better outcomes from optimists versus pessimists (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994), more recent research has also addressed the role of a realistic mindset, in which expectations are based in reality versus fantasy or illusion.

As a notable example, Chipperfield et al. (2019) addressed the role of explanatory styles in an 18-year longitudinal study assessing health expectations and health outcomes among elderly Canadians.

The researchers found that having realistically pessimistic (versus unrealistically optimistic) health expectations was related to both reduced depressive symptoms and risk of death. Similarly, unrealistic optimism (versus realistic optimism) when health is deteriorating was associated with a 313% higher death rate.

Clearly, optimism versus pessimism is not black and white. There is room for realism in this equation; realistic optimism serves a protective function by allowing a person to remain optimistic while accepting the reality of difficult situations.

A pessimist sees a dark tunnel.
An optimist sees light at the end of the tunnel.
A realist sees a freight train.
A train driver sees three idiots standing on the tracks.

 

3 Examples of the Different Mindsets

The following vignettes highlight how mindsets affect how a person responds to a challenging situation.

Stephanie is an active 32-year-old woman who has been feeling fatigued lately, with a great deal of muscle pain and stiffness. She has also noticed that she’s been clumsy, forgetting things, and that one of her eyes is blurry.

When she goes to a specialist, Stephanie is diagnosed with recurring multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune inflammatory disease that causes a wide range of neurological symptoms such as muscle weakness, vision problems, muscle numbness, and  difficulty moving. Stephanie’s mindset will play a key role in how she manages her illness as noted below.

 

Unrealistically optimistic Stephanie

If Stephanie is unrealistically optimistic, she is likely to view her condition as manageable, stable, and unlikely to worsen. She will not fault herself for her condition and will believe it to be a fluke, since things usually go her way.

Although upset by her diagnosis, she firmly believes that she has the least serious type of MS. She is confident that she will conquer her disease and get on with her life just as before.

Stephanie immediately begins an anti-inflammatory diet, attends physical therapy, and takes her medicine regularly. Stephanie feels better, but then fails to maintain her lifestyle adjustments because she thinks she’s fine now. As a result, she has a bad flare-up, ends up in the ER, and feels terribly disappointed.

 

Unrealistically pessimistic Stephanie

If Stephanie is an unrealistic pessimist, she is likely to view life challenges as stable, with this diagnosis serving as no exception. She might believe that the illness is a result of her lifestyle and that she could have prevented it somehow. She believes MS will ruin her life in many areas, such as work and relationships.

Stephanie takes her medicines, but doesn’t engage in physical therapy or change her lifestyle because she feels there’s no point, given that she has a disease she can’t control. Because she doesn’t make necessary health changes, Stephanie’s MS gets much worse, and it’s not long before she finds herself depressed and unemployed.

 

Realistically optimistic Stephanie

If Stephanie is realistically optimistic, she will receive her MS diagnosis with a healthy balance of positivism and acceptance. She will inform herself about the disease and have no illusions about her prognosis. She will take the necessary steps to reduce the impact of the disease and to enable her to maintain a meaningful, healthy lifestyle. She will change her diet and follow all of her doctor’s orders.

Because Stephanie is fully aware of the potential progression of MS, she won’t be knocked down if she has a flare-up. She will face her disease with resilience and will continue to partake in many activities that bring her joy.

 

The Pessimism Bias: Its Role in Anxiety & Depression

Pessimism and depressionThe ability to anticipate the future has been referred to as “a hallmark of cognition” (Sharot, 2011, p. R941).

Anticipation is necessary for survival, as it enables us to prepare for difficult situations. However, when we make sense of the world through a pessimistic lens, it leaves us vulnerable to anxiety and sadness.

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Lao Tzu

Pessimism & anxiety

Let’s first consider anxiety, which generally involves worry, fear, and rumination about the future (i.e., anticipatory anxiety). A highly anxious person often has a stream of what-if’s running through their mind, making it difficult to enjoy the moment.

If a person is pessimistic, they are more inclined to see the worst-case scenario, which only feeds anxiety. Additionally, a person who is chronically anxious is more likely to gauge ambiguous future events as unrealistically negative (Hartley & Phelps, 2012).

The link between cognitive bias and anxiety has been supported by the literature. For example, optimism has been associated with reduced anxiety and depression among cancer patients (Zenger, Brix, Borowski, Stolzenburg, & Hinz, 2010) and with lower anxiety among college students in both China (Yu, Chen, Liu, Yu, & Zhao, 2015) and India (Singh & Jha, 2013).

Similarly, in a large-scale longitudinal study including Australian adolescents, those who were the most optimistic were almost half as likely to be at risk for depressive symptoms (Patton et al., 2011).

Finally, in their meta-analysis, Alarcon, Bowling, and Khazon (2013) found that optimism was related to many aspects of positive wellbeing, including happiness and life satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, optimism also was negatively correlated with anxiety and depression.

 

Pessimism & depression

An explanatory style in which negative outcomes are anticipated also represents an integral ingredient of major depression (Herwig et al., 2010). Individuals with depression often feel helpless and don’t believe they have the coping resources to deal with challenges. They may be particularly hard on themselves, engaging in what Aaron Beck (1967, p. 234) has termed “systematic bias against the self.”

A person who is depressed may view themselves in a variety of negative ways that are untrue or grossly amplified (e.g., “I’m no good,” “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I’m worthless”). This pessimistic mindset increases depressive thinking, which serves to exacerbate pessimism. It’s a vicious cycle.

Empirical research supports a positive relationship between pessimistic bias and depressive symptoms (Strunk, Lopez, & DeRubeis, 2006). Significant associations between optimism and increased resilience and reduced depression among adolescents have also been reported (Niu, Fan, Zhou, Tian, & Lian, 2015).

Similarly, dispositional optimism among college students has been found to predict future depression (Vickers & Vogeltanz, 2000). Among males middle-aged and older, optimism has also been linked to better mental health and vitality (Achat, Kawachi, Spiro, DeMolles, & Sparrow, 2000).

 

Can Pessimism Be Good?

Like most everything in life, moderation is a key factor when it comes to explanatory style. For example, some people see the world through rose-colored glasses.

In doing so, they fail to notice, much less cope, with challenges. This repressive way of looking at things has drawbacks; just because you refuse to see a problem doesn’t mean it’s not there.

As with the prior example, ‘unrealistically optimistic Stephanie’ fails to comprehend the full nature of her illness, which leads to further health problems and enormous disappointment. Instead, allowing oneself to process the potential ramifications of a situation is a form of mental preparedness that helps to soften the fall during hard times.

The downside of a ‘Pollyanna’ approach is indeed supported by the literature. For example, Chipperfield et al. (2019) found that overly optimistic forecasting was related to reduced psychological wellbeing and a greater risk of death.

Similarly, Forgeard and Seligman’s (2012) review suggests that ‘unmitigated and unrealistic optimism’ may lead to a range of undesirable outcomes. Of course, it’s not healthy to always expect the worst-case scenario, but by nurturing realistic optimism, we can search for “positive experiences while acknowledging what we do not know and accepting what we cannot know” (Schneider, 2001, p. 253).

So, go ahead and practice optimism, but make sure it is balanced with a good dose of flexibility and realism.

 

A Note on Changing Your Mindset: 12 Tips

Changing your mindsetExplanatory styles are not fixed aspects of our personality; rather, they are malleable cognitive states.

Here are 12 ways to become more realistically optimistic:

  • Change your expectations
    How much time and energy is wasted by feeling bad about things and people over which we have no control? Maya Angelou understood this concept when she said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Imagine how much better you would feel if you simply modified your expectations to be consistent with that which you cannot change.

  • Enjoy the small things
    If you postpone happiness for big events in life, you are limiting your happiness to very few experiences. Consider the smaller, more frequent aspects of life that make you happy and you will reap the benefits.

  • Seek beauty
    Beauty is subjective. Find what is beautiful to you, such as a sunset or a garden, and savor it.

  • Visualize positivity
    Whether you use a vision board or simply your imagination, by visualizing what you desire, it feels more attainable.

  • Be realistic
    There is a happy medium between pessimism and radical optimism. Be realistic about yourself and the world around you, and it will better prepare you for what tomorrow brings.

  • Practice gratitude
    Gratitude is the antithesis of negativity. Consider and appreciate the great things in your life.

  • Start the day on a positive note
    A day goes more smoothly if it begins with a positive outlook. Remember to start the day with hope and positivity.

  • Be a positive role model
    When you behave like the optimistic person you would like your children, friends, or coworkers to emulate, you are likely to become that person.

  • Do something creative
    Creative flow is a positive and enjoyable experience. Find a creative pursuit you enjoy and your mindset will shift accordingly.

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself
    Self-love is a key aspect of a positive attitude. If you consistently berate yourself, seek ways to create more kind and loving self-talk.

  • Practice mindful meditation
    This approach enables a person to calm their ‘monkey mind’ and allow unwanted thoughts to float on by. It is an excellent way to minimize the impact of negative thoughts on emotional wellbeing.

  • Find your ikigai
    Ikigai’ refers to a reason to live. It is a mindset and lifestyle that involves kindness, community, acceptance, beauty, healthy behaviors, and living in the moment. If you find your ikigai, you are far more likely to experience joy, excellent health, and a zest for life.

 

3 Books on the Topic

There is plenty of reading material that promotes a healthy explanatory style; here are three examples:

 

1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff – Richard Carlson

Don't sweat the small stuff

This highly successful book provides several simple ways to avoid overblowing difficult situations. By maintaining perspective, readers are better able to minimize anxiety.

Among the book’s many insights, readers are advised to trust their intuitions, focus on one thing at a time, and reframe challenges as teaching opportunities.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism

Authored by a renowned expert in positive psychology, this informative book is the product of over 20 years of research. It contains many simple methods for embracing a constructive explanatory style and learned optimism.

With tips that help to enhance happiness and wellbeing, this book applies to individuals of all ages.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

3. A Year of Positive Thinking: Daily Inspiration, Wisdom, and Courage – Cyndie Spiegel

Year of positive thinking

The goal of this book is to help readers develop a more positive mindset by following daily prompts for an entire year.

It contains a full year of tips, exercises, mantras, and other techniques aimed at promoting positive life changes.

Grounded in psychological research, this inspirational guide provides actionable ways to enhance self-respect, courage, and positivity.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Resources

PositivePsychology.com encourages a healthy, positive outlook. In doing so, we provide many useful resources. Here are three:

11 Optimism Tools, Examples, and Exercises to Help Improve Your Outlook. This comprehensive article includes information about optimism theory, along with ways to encourage optimism in therapy and among children. It also contains several optimism tests and questionnaires, worksheets, activities, and exercises.

Finding Silver Linings. This exercise helps individuals find the bright side of difficult situations. It contains the following four steps:

  1. Shift into a positive mindset by listing five things that are meaningful, enjoyable, or worthwhile.
  2. Identify a recent difficulty by describing a recent event that resulted in distress or frustration.
  3. Identify costs by writing down the costs associated with the event noted above.
  4. Find silver linings by listing at least three positive outcomes of the above difficulty.

Overall, by engaging in this exercise for two weeks, readers are more equipped to approach challenges with a positive perspective that promotes resilience.

The Yes-Brain Versus the No-Brain. This tool is aimed at helping individuals experience both a ‘yes’ mindset and a ‘no’ mindset in order to learn the benefits of the former. It includes the following four steps:

  1. Saying ‘No.’ Individuals first engage in a mindfulness exercise in which they become aware of the present moment and what happens within their bodies. The practitioner then says ‘No’ eight times in a row using a stern, low, hard voice. As this is happening, the client is asked to notice what’s happening in their body.

  2. Saying ‘Yes.’ Individuals now consider how their bodies respond when the practitioner repeats the word ‘Yes’ eight times in a row, using a warm, encouraging, gentle voice.

  3. Reflection. Individuals reflect on the prior steps by following prompts, such as “Did you feel differently when hearing ‘No’ and when hearing ‘Yes?’”

  4. Discussion. The practitioner now describes the client’s reactions in terms of a fight-or-flight response and how it relates to the ‘Yes’ versus ‘No’ brain. Individuals also learn that they can train their brain to become more emotionally stable, resilient, insightful, and empathetic.

By participating in this exercise, individuals are in a better position to foster a more positive and healthy mindset.

17 Positive Psychology Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

 

9 Popular Quotes

Optimism QuotesQuotes often represent inspirational tools for embracing an optimistic explanatory style.

Here are nine examples:

Be optimistic like a flower. A flower never loses her optimism and will bloom with all of her beauty despite tremendous adversity.

Debasish Mridha

Optimism is the foundation of courage.

Nicholas M. Butler

Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.

Voltaire

The optimism of a healthy mind is indefatigable.

Margery Allingham

A pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.

George Bernard Shaw

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Wayne Dyer

Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.

Albert Einstein

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

Antonio Gramsci

Pessimists try to convince you the world sucks, optimists already know it does and smile anyway.

Jonathan Harnisch

 

A Take-Home Message

There are many ways to adjust our mindsets to promote a healthy, positive approach to problems.

In fact, a combination of realism and optimism enables us to maintain positivity while bracing ourselves for disappointment.

Fortunately, our explanatory styles can be changed.

There is no reason to hide behind rose-colored glasses; by embracing both reality and optimism, we are able to face life’s inevitable challenges with courage and perseverance.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

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  • Alarcon, G., Bowling, N., & Khazon, S. (2013). Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope. Personality & Individual Differences, 54, 821–827.
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About the Author

Heather Lonczak holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with a focus on Positive Youth Development. She has published numerous articles aimed at reducing health disparities and promoting positive psychosocial youth outcomes (e.g., academic achievement, cultural identity, mindfulness and belief in the future). Heather is also a children’s book author whose publications primarily center around the enhancement of child resilience, as well as empathy and compassion for wildlife.

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