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Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Optimist search for opportunities, while pessimists expect negative outcomes.

Frank always looks for the silver lining. For example, the other day we were playing golf. I hit the first ball straight down the fairway. "Well, that's a little unusual," I thought to myself. Frank stepped up and hooked his ball into the adjoining fairway. Frank picked up his clubs, headed for the fairway and said, "Nice day for a walk." That was typical of Frank, who had faced his share of challenges the greatest of which occurred during the final months of his last tour of duty in Iraq. His platoon was returning to base when the vehicle in which he was riding hit an improvised explosive device (IED). Frank spent nearly 3 months in the hospital with a severely shattered right leg. In spite of heroic efforts by the medical team, Frank's right leg was amputated just above the knee. I watched Frank in awe, not so much because of how well he walked on his prosthetic leg, but because of his consistent optimism.

I asked Frank how he managed to stay optimistic. He said, "I've never really thought much about it. Most of the people in my family have always looked at the bright side of things. It seemed natural to believe things will turn out well for me."


Optimists roam the earth searching for opportunities. There is ample evidence that optimists do better in most areas of life. Studies show they are more successful, have happier relationships, get depressed less, make more money, and are generally healthier than pessimists. Optimists are forward-looking, that is, they have a positive view of the future.


Pessimists roam the earth expecting things to turn out worse than they really are. They think about things in terms of "always" and "never." They often feel they are victims of circumstance. Studies show pessimists perform better when they think negatively. They set low expectations for themselves and by imagining the whole range of bad outcomes use this knowledge as motivation.


Studies published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggest that positive and negative attitudes might be hardwired in our brains. Does that mean pessimists are doomed to negative thinking, worrying, and anxiety forever? The answer is no. Studies show that some 30 to 35 percent of Americans use a defensive strategy called "defensive pessimism," a calculated form of negative thinking. When implementing "defensive pessimism" individuals set low expectations for their performance, regardless of how well they have done in the past. Using this strategy, defensive pessimists can advantageously harness anxiety that might otherwise harm their performance.


1. Do you view most things are your fault?

2. Do you have "all or nothing" thinking?

3. Do problems become catastrophes?

4. Are you a perfectionist?

5. Do you have a hard time accepting compliments?

6. Do you seek the approval and opinion of others before acting?

7. Do you tend to over-generalize?

8. Do you focus on the negative minutiae?

If you answered "yes" to four or more of these questions you are more of a pessimist than an optimist.


Here are a few simple ways to become an optimistic person, according to Barrie Davenport, author of Live Bold and Bloom and other books.

1. Avoid catastrophic thinking. Avoid the use of words like awful, disgusting, horrible, dreadful, revolting, repulsive, etc.

2. Give yourself credit for your own success.

3. Be persistent and "act as if" you are an optimist. Some would say, "fake it till you make it."

4. Reframe disappointment. When you fail think about the lessons you learned.

Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism states that changing how we think changes how we feel, and he quickly notes that we choose the way we think. So if we think like an optimist we probably will be optimistic and if we think like a pessimist we probably will be pessimistic.

Norem, J. K., & Cantor, N. (1986) Defensive Pessimism: Harnessing Anxiety as Motivation. Journal of Personality and Psychology, 51, 1208-1217.

Seligman, Martin E.P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

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