When you hear the words “optimism” and “pessimism,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Of course, the meaning of these two terms is heavily used to describe other people’s nature. We even use these terms to describe ourselves as well. However, these two terms are slightly different from the words “positivity” and “negativity,” respectively. I am saying this because if you think about it, “being positive” or “negative” by someone is a choice but being an “optimist” or a “pessimist” is a personality trait which an individual acquires during their lifetime.
So, what exactly is the meaning of these two traits?
Philosophically speaking, “optimism” by Leibniz is described as a doctrine that says that the world is the best of all possible worlds. To describe it, it means being hopeful and confident about the future or the success of something else. On the other hand, philosophy describes “pessimism” as a belief that this world is as bad as it could be or that evil will ultimately prevail over good. Or in simple words, pessimism refers to a tendency to see the worst in every situation and believe that the worst will happen. These two traits are the complete opposite of one another, which heavily influences an individual’s mental and emotional state.
The basic understanding of these two terms is pretty easy to grasp. Though to simplify them completely without understanding the psychological reasons behind their meanings will not be correct. These traits are way more complex than the given descriptions, though. To understand these terms in a more detailed manner, let us look further in the article.
WHO EXACTLY IS AN OPTIMIST?
Karol Ward, a licensed psychotherapist, says, “From my experience, optimism is both a personality trait and a product of our environment.” As mentioned above, the meaning of optimism describes the tendency to remain hopeful and look at the best possible outcomes regarding the future or any other situation. And we all know that how our environment plays an important role in structuring our personality. Studies and research suggest that people who have an optimistic personality usually have a very “predictable” childhood, i.e., a comfortable and happy childhood, which helps them grow with a positive insight about the world. Studies also say that almost 25% of optimism is inheritable though other factors, such as socioeconomic status, also play a significant part, usually out of our control.
An optimist looks at the world in the best way possible. Instead of looking at hardships negatively, they take them as learning experiences that help them grow into a better human being. They look at the brighter side of every situation instead of becoming gloomy about the negative points, which also boosts their confidence. Are you are an optimist or know someone like that; then these are a few characteristics you must have noticed:
- They tend to look at the future with positivity and hope.
- They feel like they can handle any challenge presented in front of them.
- They like to think that everything will be fine.
- They see challenges as learning experiences.
- They don’t like to give up and try their hardest in every situation.
- They believe that there is always a better future waiting.
- Instead of being judgmental, they look at the positive side of the people.
- They always see the best in others as well as in themselves.
- They like to show their gratitude towards the good things which have happened to them.
- They take responsibility for their mistakes but don’t like to dwell on them.
- If anything bad ever happens, they don’t start to think negatively about the future.
These features of an optimist sure are a booster for them. Being an optimist has several advantages, and if you look at them, you will understand why optimism is preferred so much everywhere. Here are a few listed benefits an optimist can have:
1. BETTER HEALTH: We all know how important it is to remain healthy and stable to continue a proper lifestyle. Because of their positive viewpoints, optimists get the upper hand here who don’t like to dwell on the negative factors but rather focus on the positivity around them. They are shown to have better physical health, including a 50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and greater survival rates when fighting cancer. They are also said to remain mentally healthy because of their hopeful attitude regarding the people around them and the situations they are involved in.
2. GREATER ACHIEVEMENT: Several studies suggest optimists tend to achieve their goals because of their positive attitude. A study states that pessimist swimmers who were led to believe that they had poor performance tend to give poor performances soon. However, optimistic swimmers don’t have this vulnerability as they can excel in their field with more enthusiasm and hopefulness.
3. INCREASED LONGEVITY: Optimists are also said to have higher life expectancy than pessimists. Because they believe in themselves and feel like they can overcome challenges in their lives, they can live longer. A study was done on thirty-four baseball players who played between 1900 and 1950, which suggests that optimists lived slightly longer. Other case studies show that optimistic people with breast cancer had a better life quality than hopeless ones.
4. PERSISTENCE: Optimists are also said to be obstinate who don’t like giving up easily. For them, challenges are small setbacks that they have to overcome to reach their goal. They take learning experiences from their failure instead of dropping their passion and continuing to move forward to achieve their goal.
5. LESS STRESS: Because they have faith in themselves, they don’t let failure get them and make them feel useless about themselves. Optimists are more likely to learn from their failures than dwell upon them, helping them cope with mental stress. Their positive attitude helps them understand their own worth, which protects them from any external negative thoughts.
The given information above pretty much sums up an optimist’s viewpoint and their strengths. Now, let’s try to understand how a pessimist is the complete opposite of an optimist.
WHO IS A PESSIMIST?
The definition of a pessimist can be stated as “a person who tends to look at a situation in the worst way possible and always look at the negative side.” Unlike optimists who like to look at the brighter side of a situation, pessimists are more inclined to the negative side. Several studies suggest that pessimism grows in an individual due to an “unpredictable” childhood, which mentally and emotionally scars them. They grow in an unhealthy and toxic environment where not much support is shown to them, and eventually, they grow the habit of looking at the negative side more rather than believing in what is better.
In a general sense, pessimists are said to have characteristics that are the complete opposite of an optimist. Even though some studies suggest that 80% of the population consists of optimists, you must have encouraged a few pessimists in your life. Here are a few listed features of them:
- They always find flaws in themselves.
- They do not believe in their own abilities and tend to remain very scared and anxious all the time.
- They do not like to take upon challenges as they already believe that they will not do that.
- Instead of trying, they like to give up easily.
- They also feel like they are disliked by others and are not needed.
- Their insecurities only increase when they make even a small mistake.
- They don’t like setting goals for themselves as they feel like they won’t reach them and give up easily.
- They even find it hard to show their gratitude towards people who do something good for them as they are always looking at the negative side.
The above characteristics of a pessimist are the consequence of various emotional and mental issues. It’s not like someone willingly chooses to become a pessimist; it’s just that circumstances create their mindset in such a manner that they continue to look at the negative side instead of the positive one. A person’s pessimism can also be very harmful to their social and personal life and health. There are actually quite a lot of disadvantages a pessimist has to go through. Here are a few of them:
1. BAD MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH: Negativity can only give birth to negative emotions, which happens in a pessimist’s case. Instead of being hopeful, they show no self-love and confidence, which puts them under immense pressure. Their insecurities make them suffer not only physically but also mentally. Depression and heart problems are widespread in such people as they give in to these negative thoughts and feel like they don’t know how to make it through problems.
2. LACK OF CONFIDENCE: Because they do not show any confidence in their own skills, pessimists also fail in making an impression in front of an audience. There is a possibility that they may have worked hard for a particular project, but when they are said to present it, they end up losing their nerves, which only leads to a disastrous situation.
3. EASILY GIVING UP: There sure are chances of a pessimist setting up a goal for themselves, but because of their insecurities, they usually tend to give up. If any challenge is presented in front of them, they will quickly back off with their lack of confidence because they do not believe in their own abilities.
4. EXTREME STRESS: The mental strain they put on themselves can be terrible. Pessimists tend to keep beating themselves up as they feel like they are of no importance. Their insecurities only add up when they fail in a given task, which gives them immense mental stress. They are negative about their environment and themselves, which keeps on building pressure and can even lead to different mental health problems.
OPTIMISM VS PESSIMISM: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEM
I gave you a pretty detailed description of optimists and pessimists and what set them so different from one another in the above section. Their way of thinking is the most significant factor which helps us differentiate between these two. However, is it really okay to leave the detailed description of these two as it is without any further explanations? Well, of course not. As I said before, their meanings are more complex than what we perceive in general. Several studies show that it is possible to view both optimism and pessimism in an objective, methodological and scientific manner.
Both optimism and pessimism are different modes of thinking which can best be conceptualized, not rigidly, but rather as a continuum with many degrees of optimism and pessimism. A person can be optimistic on different occasions while remaining pessimistic regarding other aspects. The concept of “glass half empty, glass half full” may not apply everywhere because we all know that there are sunny days and rainy days in life, and we cannot continue to hope for a particular kind of day forever. Here, the case is similar as both optimists and pessimists like to switch positions from time to time.
From a general perspective, we all know that optimists look at the brighter side while pessimists look at the negative one. However, there are chances when our own optimism can backfire while our pessimistic mindset helps us achieve our goal. To understand their meanings in a detailed manner, we will have to look at optimism and pessimism experimentally. They are expressed as a mood, a temporary state of mind, and a permanent personality trait.
OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM AS DISPOSITIONAL TRAITS
The self-regulatory model given by Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver is based on expectancy-value theory to describe how these traits relate to human experiences. According to this, goals give meaning to a person’s life, but there are also possibilities that the person might change their preference later. It can be due to various reasons, but one cannot say for certain that their goal will remain the same forever. There are times when people are met with challenges that can be hard to overcome. For example, let’s take an optimistic college student who failed in one of their exams. Instead of giving up, this person will look for his mistakes and try to do better in the next test. However, if we take a pessimist student in this situation, they might end up taking a lot of mental stress from their failure and eventually even give up on their college life.
It is definitely a possibility for a person to abandon their goal if they are constantly failing in that and look for an alternative instead. It is not like they are giving up but are making an efficient decision that can benefit them later. In optimists’ case, they tend to show a lot of confidence in their work and skills. If we present a situation where a said person cannot achieve their said goal, they would rather try somewhere else instead of dwelling on their past failures.
When there is an adverse situation, optimists face them head-on while pessimists tend to back off. Optimists usually can deal with their problems and eventually try to look for a second option for themselves, unlike pessimists who get more insecure. Furthermore, optimists can make the best out of a bad situation and accept the reality that is not that easy for pessimists.
OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM AS COGNITIVE STYLES
Aarom Beck’s cognitive theory of depression derives the notion that cognitive styles bear a causal relationship to our affective experiences. According to him, the distortions occurring in a person’s mind are usually the result of the negative information they like to highlight, leading to mental health problems. On the other hand, the people who tend to look at the positive ideas while ignoring the negative viewpoints are free from such issues. According to the attribution theory, individuals attempt to explain the events in their lives by “attributing” the cause to one of three dimensions: internal-external, stable-temporary, and global-specific. The internal-external dimension talks about whether an event occurred in an individual’s life due to their own actions or because of any other external force. The stable-temporary dimension suggests whether the cause of an event is temporary or permanent. The global-specific dimension talks about whether the cause of an event will affect many areas of a person’s life or only one particular area.
In the case of pessimists, they tend to have an explanatory style that involves attributing negative events to internal, stable, and global factors (e.g., I can’t dance because I am fat.). On the other hand, optimists have an explanatory style that involves external, temporary, and specific casual attributors for negative events (e.g., I can’t dance because my teacher is very poor at teaching).
Individuals with an optimistic explanatory style are often able to develop problem-focused coping strategies through which they deal with the problem directly and come up with a good solution. However, there are chances that their effort may go to waste if the individual does not have adequate resources to implement any change. This can also lead to a maladaptive reaction where the situation may not be amenable to change (e.g., death of a loved one). Emotion-focused coping help in the best way in distressed situations as they are more adaptive and does not waste any time and energy.
OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM AS STRATEGY AND DEFENSE
It is not necessary for an individual to forever be either optimistic or pessimistic. Sure there are situations when a person changes their mindset and can bring a change. However, optimism and pessimism are also used, more strategically and defensively, respectively, which help us from dire situations. Talking about strategic optimism refers to a strategy of setting high expectations consistent with self-perceptions and past experiences. In this situation, a person can keep any negative thoughts out of their mind while preparing for the task. For example, a person is given the task of organizing a function. Because of their past experiences, they may start working on it as soon as possible while preparing for the best outcome.
In case of defensive pessimism, a person usually tries to bring in all the negative outcomes while setting low expectations for themselves, thereby preparing for the upcoming event in the best way possible. For example, let’s say that a person should give a speech in front of a huge audience. In this case, they will start looking for the negative outcomes that may hamper their performance even though they have performed well in other events. This defense mechanism of looking for the outcomes that might go wrong will help the person prepare more diligently and properly.
No matter what kind of trait we acquire, there is always a possibility to change. At the end of the day, our survival and wellness require a balance between optimism and pessimism. We know that we cannot remain pessimistic for the rest of our lives and neither remain optimistic in every situation of our life. There are supposed to be ups and downs, and we cannot find a proper balance between all these problems, then we may fail ourselves. Yes, optimism has its pros, and pessimism has its cons, but both these traits can be used strategically, as I mentioned in the last point. Being overly optimistic can be harmful at times, just like being pessimistic can help us look for different outcomes. It’s all about how we perceive it and how we apply it in various stages of our lives.