In her latest guest post, Positive Psychology teacher and wellbeing expert Anna Glynn explores the differences between optimism and pessimism, and how either one has a significant impact on how you view the world and approach challenges.
Winston Churchill famously claimed, “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.
Are you typically an optimist or a pessimist? As in, do you consider your glass is half-empty or half-full?
Whilst we face pandemic-related challenges, optimism may be one of the most important tools for us to have to help us endure this storm.
What is optimism?
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Wong (2020), “optimism is the faith or belief in a better future that provides the hope and confidence to realise it despite the uncertainty.” Optimism enables us to cope with stressors in the present as it supports us to expect a better future at some point. And even if the future doesn’t take place as planned, optimism helps us bounce back from disappointments, as there is an ongoing expectation that things will get better eventually.
In addition to boosting our resilience, optimism can enhance our wellbeing and has been positively correlated with life satisfaction. Optimism also comes with a whole range of other benefits including better mental and physical health, stronger and longer-lasting relationships (as optimists are happier and easier to be around), higher grades, more career success (although this may depend on which industry you belong), and higher income (Carver et al., 2010).
Optimism isn’t about being a ‘Pollyanna’ and ignoring the struggles in our lives. But rather, optimism enables us to focus on the positives, and be hopeful about the future despite the setbacks.
How does optimism compare to pessimism?
One of the biggest differences between optimism and pessimism is how they both think in times of challenge and adversity. Those who are more pessimistic tend to stress the negative, they have unfavourable future expectations, and believe that the bad outweighs the good in the world. Often pessimists withdraw from life’s activities and as a result they are more likely to experience physical and mental health challenges including depression, stress and anxiety (Kamen & Seligman, 1987).
Am I pessimist or an optimist?
Typically, there are two ways to assess whether you fall into the optimist or pessimist category. The first is to look at whether you think favourably or unfavourably about the future, which is measured by the Life Orientation Test (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994). The second considers how you explain past bad events, which is called your explanatory style (Seligman, 1990), and will be covered further here.
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman (1990), an expert on learned optimism, suggests that pessimists consider previous negative experiences as entirely their fault, something that would never change and that it would negatively impact every area of their life. Whereas optimists view the same events as temporary, caused by something external and contained to that one event (Seligman, 1990).
Depending on what your typical explanatory style is, you may be pleased to know that optimism can be learned quite easily (Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, & Seligman, 1995).
How do I learn optimism?
Given the benefits already outlined, it makes sense that we should all want to be more optimistic. Outside of genes and socioeconomic status, there are factors within your control that will enable you to become more optimistic. Studies have uncovered the typical thoughts, actions and feelings that optimists typically engage in, perhaps more so than pessimists, which are as follows:
- Can identify problems
- See challenges as opportunities
- Identify what they can control
- More positive
- Use humour
- Are grateful
- Approach orientated
- Ask for help and seek information
- Take action.
Extracted from Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty course by the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania.
We know our thoughts drive our actions and behaviours. Therefore, by challenging and altering our thoughts to be more optimistic (i.e. we see challenges as opportunities), we will act and feel more optimistic too.
What is the right amount of optimism?
Like anything, too much optimism can be harmful. For example, having what’s called an optimism bias can cause people to have a false sense of security and underestimate potential risks to themselves. Typically, this bias is common in smokers or gamblers, who believe that health problems or monetary loss won’t happen to them. Being too optimistic at work can also result in poor planning, a failure to source necessary resources and a reliance on hard work and determination (Compton & Hoffman, 2012; Peterson, 2000). And of course, there’s always a time and place for some mild pessimism…
Although optimism won’t make us immune from the challenges in life like this global pandemic, it can support us to be hopeful of a better future.
And technically the glass is always full, it just depends on whether you count both the water and air or not.
You can also read Anna’s previous articles on avoiding negative thinking traps, tips to remain motivated in your work, strengthening your resilience muscle, and how to stay emotionally connected while working apart.