For the most part, the world is made up of optimists and pessimists—and sprinkled with a healthy dose of realists in between. In general, optimists expect good things to happen, and pessimists expect negative things to come their way. Sometimes pessimists consider themselves to be realists more so than optimists do.
A number of theories propose that optimistic and pessimistic personalities are shaped through early childhood experiences. In his personality theory, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson taught that those with “predictable” childhoods usually ended up with a basic sense of trust, whereas those with “unpredictable” childhoods were less inclined to trust people and circumstances. As a result, how people handle life experiences often depends on whether they have pessimistic or optimistic personalities. According to Carver and Schier (1999), “Optimists experience less distress than pessimistic when dealing with difficulties in their lives” (p. 190).
In his article on optimism, Dr. Gordon Livingston (2010) noted that pessimists tend to be more depressed and harbor more doubts than those who think more optimistically. My experience has shown me that both optimism and pessimism are contagious. I remember when I was in nursing school many years ago, a professor in my psychiatry rotation said that one way to tell if people are depressed is that when you’re with them, you also feel depressed. I thought this was a brilliant observation, and over the years I’ve definitely found this to be the case.
During my younger years, I always thought it was healthier to be an optimist than a pessimist. However, my life experiences have taught me that it is balance that keeps us going. Some years ago I read an article in Ode Magazine: For Intelligent Optimists, called “No Silver Linings, Please.” The writer backed up my opinions on this subject, and said that contemporary theory tells us that healthy doses of pessimism may be important ingredients in overcoming psychological obstacles and achieving personal goals.
“Defensive pessimism” can be employed when a book proposal is rejected or when you get a cancer diagnosis twice in five years, as I did. This is a psychological stance that involves accepting the fact that things can go drastically wrong and being able to defensively prepare yourself for any eventuality.
For example, if you’re a writer, research has shown that optimism is an invaluable tool in coping with rejection. Continual disappointment can result in writers being reluctant to send their creative work to publications. But often, optimism keeps writers like me going through difficult times. However, those in the know recommend that we don’t get too elated when receiving good news. This way, there’s less of a chance for an emotional letdown. In other words, having a tinge of pessimism can be the most optimistic way to go about life!
Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life is an interesting read. Through his research, he has shown that unlike the beliefs of behaviorists who say you’re created by your environment, how you think is what really matters. In fact, by thinking optimistically, you can change things for the better. Conversely, by thinking pessimistically, you can change things for the worse.
Seligman shares a test in his book that can help you figure out your own style of thinking. There are three particular aspects to measure:
Permanence: If things are good (or bad), do you expect them to stay like that for a long time?
Pervasiveness: If one thing is good (or bad), do you expect everything else to be like that?
Personalization: If things are good (or bad), who gets the credit (or blame)—you or somebody else?
Creative individuals, particularly writers, are typically very hard on themselves and their creative process. They often err on the side of pessimism, thinking their work is not good enough and will be rejected by agents, editors, and publishers. The positive side of this type of pessimism is that creative types are often more industrious and perfectionistic than optimistic folk, knowing that they have to be impeccable in order to rise to the top of their respective professions. As such, in certain situations, a healthy dose of pessimism can be advantageous. So, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst!
Carver, C.S. and M. F. Schier. (1999). Optimism. In Coping, by C.R. Snyder, Ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Livingston, G. (2010). “Optimism.” Psychology Today. July 1, 2009.