To Get Through Tough Times Turn Down Your Pessimism

New research shows the value of remaining positive when things look negative.

Posted Feb 09, 2021

As you head into year two of the coronavirus pandemic, it might seem that there will never be brighter days in the future, much less a return to life as normal. You know that it’s important to remain optimistic, but even if you always tend to see the glass half full, it’s hard to glean any reason to see it as anything other than nearly empty.

Perhaps you actually know people who manage to remain cheerful in the midst of the chaos created by the pandemic. When they look at news stories, they focus on the ones that provide inspiration rather than the ones that focus on the dire numbers, statistics, and obituaries. How is it possible for people to dig down and find any cause to feel that life is good?

As it turns out, there is a personality trait that can explain this tendency to overlook the negative and find reason to celebrate each day as it comes. Optimism, from this perspective, reflects not some delusional form of denial, but a stable quality that allows people to feel genuinely hopeful no matter what's going on around them.

According to a recent paper by Michael Scheier of Carnegie Mellon University (2020) and his team on the Optimism/Pessimism Meta-Analytic Consortium, an optimist is someone who will consistently agree with the statement “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” and would disagree with the statement “I hardly ever expect things to go my way” (p. 6).

The tendency to adopt an optimistic approach to life, Scheier et al. maintain, should translate into some specific psychological as well as physical advantages. As he and the Consortium authors observe, optimists have a track record of beating pessimists on such key metrics as problem-solving, relationships, and even overall quality of life.

Perhaps even more significantly, optimists are reported to be healthier than their less cheerful counterparts. The data suggest that optimists experience quicker recovery from surgery, less cardiovascular disease and stroke, lower blood pressure, and lower levels of blood cortisol, the stress hormone. Not surprisingly, based on this set of advantages, optimists also tend to live longer.

The question that the team investigated in their paper is whether it's enough to be an optimist in order to experience these many benefits. Is optimism simply the opposite of pessimism, or could there be two traits along which people can independently differ? Prior theory suggests that perhaps optimism is best thought of not as mutually exclusive with pessimism, but as a personality trait in its own right. The purpose of their meta-analytic review was to find out whether, from this dimensional point of view, optimism and pessimism could be related to health outcomes in different ways. People high in pessimism, in other words, may differ physiologically from people low in pessimism, but optimism may have nothing to do statistically with that physiological index.

From the Consortium coauthors, the Carnegie Mellon-led team had at their disposal a data set consisting of over 221,000 participants averaging nearly 64 years old. Unfortunately, the data were limited by the fact that almost all participants were female, White, and living in the U.S. The reason for this lack of diversity was that the two studies which provided the lion’s share of the data were based on a majority of White women. These limitations should be kept in mind as you think about the findings.

Turning now to the results, the authors reported that, as they predicted, they were best able to predict health outcomes when they took into account the combined optimism-pessimism scores of the participants. Some of these effects associated with low pessimism-high optimism involve important health indicators, including higher respiratory efficiency (better oxygen intake), lower rates of failure of in vitro fertilization, more favorable glucose levels, shorter length of stay in hospitals, heart failure survival, body mass index, and better immune functioning.

This impressive array of favorable effects of the low pessimism-high optimism combination was captured perhaps most impressively when the authors examined overall mortality. In the words of the authors, “a one-point change in the pessimism direction of the pessimism subscale corresponds to an increase in 97,914 deaths from all causes.” Thus, “statistical effects, even small ones, can be quite meaningful when applied to large numbers of people” (p.16).

You know now, then, that low pessimism is an important trait to have in terms of your health. What might explain this finding? Previous research discussed by Scheier and his team suggests that optimists are better able to cope with stress, specifically the stress involved in dealing with adversity. However, the current study suggests further that to deal with adversity successfully, you also have to be low in pessimism.

Now it's time to return to the question of how optimism allows some people to maintain their belief that life will get better while living through the midst of these very difficult times. Could it be due to the lack of pessimism rather than the presence of optimism? If so, managing the stress and uncertainty of life in the pandemic appears to be just as strongly related to the ability to avoid looking at the dark side of the future as it does to seeing the light at the end of this long tunnel.

These two sides to the coin can also help you cope with COVID-19 stress on a day-to-day basis. It’s helpful to expect the best, but you also need to avoid imagining the worst. If you’re one of those people who can’t stop looking at the constant numbers scrolling on the television, it might be time to turn instead to those inspirational stories. There are plenty of reports that can offer a contrasting perspective, such as those that focus on the strengths of your local heroes working as first responders, teachers, and public servants.

At the same time, it’s worth recognizing that the more you can get your pessimism levels to dip, the more you can promote your own mental and physical health. Cause and effect is notoriously difficult to tease apart when you’re looking at the type of correlational data provided by the meta-analytic team. People who are healthier might feel less pessimistic, rather than it being the case that low pessimism predicts better health.

When it comes down to your own personal life outcomes, though, you can overlook these statistical niceties and find ways to make that correlation work in your favor. Indeed, as Scheier et al. suggest, maybe it's time for the positive psychology movement to take a page from the cognitive-behavioral playbook regarding depression and anxiety. Turning your negative thoughts into more constructive ones could, with time, steer you onto a healthier course as you deal with the adversity you're facing now.

To sum up, as the months—and now year—have progressed since COVID-19 changed everything, the way that you’ll get through it psychologically truly matters. Lowering your pessimism and increasing your optimism might just provide the way toward reaching not only better health but a longer and more fulfilling life.

References

Scheier, M. F., Swanson, J. D., Barlow, M. A., Greenhouse, J. B., Wrosch, C., & Tindle, H. A. (2020). Optimism versus pessimism as predictors of physical health: A comprehensive reanalysis of dispositional optimism research. American Psychologist. doi: 10.1037/amp0000666.supp (Supplemental)