Optimism and pessimism are mindset’s that influence how we see and think about ourselves and the world around us. You won’t be surprised to hear that optimism is strongly related to health and happiness or that it is a fundamental trait of those of us who are considered resilient. However, there are certain times when an overly optimistic approach can be detrimental to our wellbeing and a pessimistic attitude can be more beneficial.
In this post, we will look at what science has to say about these seemingly opposing mindset’s.
To begin, it can be helpful to view optimism and pessimism under the following four categories:
Unrealistic Pessimism: Thinking in irrationally negative and catastrophic terms. This approach can colour life in a negative light and make minor setbacks seem insurmountable.
Realistic Pessimism: Assessing situations accurately but giving extra weight to potentially negative outcomes. This approach can be helpful in terms of risk-assessment but it can also prevent us from taking a chance on our own potential and limit our view of what is possible.
Realistic Optimism: Assessing situations accurately without over-emphasising potentially negative outcomes. This approach is characterised by a belief in our capacity for growth and a willingness to work hard to fulfil our potential.
Unrealistic Optimism: Believing that only success and good things will come our way regardless of our circumstances or input. This kind of irrational positivity prevents us from working towards our goals which is clearly unhelpful.
As you can imagine there are situations in life were a realistic but cautious approach is best. If I needed to have an operation, I would prefer if my surgeon was being ‘realistically pessimistic’ for example. However, a ‘realistically optimistic’ approach is typically the way to go if we want a healthy and productive life.
The main difference between realistic optimism and the other approaches I’ve mentioned, is that it inspires and relies upon hard work. The belief that realistic optimists have in in their ability to succeed, encourages them to take healthy risks. The logical but unbiased thinking that they engage in also motivates them to persistently work towards their goals. Conversely, realistic pessimists are less likely to even try and find it harder to remain motivated when they do. This is because they believe that success is much less likely.
The foundational belief of the realistic optimist is that improvement is possible. This is not only a beneficial mindset to have, it is also an accurate one. The study of neuroscience confirms that our brains change based on how they are used. This means that if we repeatedly think and behave optimistically, our neural circuits will re-wire accordingly. In other words, optimism can be learned. Improvement is possible!
I’ve written some common examples of pessimistic and optimistic thinking below. If you experience any form of difficulty, failure or criticism this week, take a moment to see which category you are falling into. Then ask yourself, which style of thinking is more likely to promote positive action and wellbeing, as opposed to feelings of helplessness and passivity. The choice is yours!
HOW PESSIMISTS THINK
Personal: Failure is due to a personal flaw“I’m so stupid”, “It’s all my fault“
Permanent: Things will never change“I will never do well”, “I might as well give up”
Pervasive: Failure is a constant pattern“I always mess up”, “My life is crap”
HOW OPTIMISTS THINK
Impersonal: Outside influences are considered when failure occurs“It was a very difficult test”, “If I studied harder I would do better”
Impermanent: Failure is fleeting and changeable“I can learn and improve”, “This failure doesn’t define my future”
Specific: Failure relates to specific instances“I mess up sometimes but usually do well”,“I’m doing great in other areas of my life”