Optimists vs. Pessimists: Who’s right?



I listed optimism as one of the ten things you should do every day to improve your life. Yet pessimism does have advantages and plenty of people see it as a better way to view the world.  What does the research say about the best outlook to take?


Glass as half full

Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life. Being positive can actually cause better health because it changes how people behave.

Via The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain:

This study examined a group of patients who had experienced heart attacks and were following a rehabilitation program. The researchers found that… optimists exercised more and were more likely to reduce their body-fat levels, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. They were also more likely to take vitamins and eat low-fat diets. The result: Optimists lived longer… people who react to illness with passive acceptance of their own impending death… die prematurely…

Optimism can make you happier. (And before someone screams “correlation/causation!” research has shown that practicing optimism and gratitude does cause increases in happiness.)

The army teaches soldiers to be optimistic because it makes them tougher and more resourceful. Just believing you can become smarter and can become a better negotiator have both been shown to increase improvement.

Being socially optimistic — expecting people to like you — makes people like you more. Expecting a positive outcome from negotiations made groups more likely to come to a deal and to be happy with it.

Optimistic salespeople are more successful.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…testing revealed that the agents with more optimistic styles sold 37 percent more insurance than those with pessimistic ones, and that the most optimistic agents actually sold fully 88 percent more than the most pessimistic ones.

And optimism researcher Tali Sharot explains that, no, being pessimistic doesn’t soften the blow of bad news.

Via The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain:

…students who had low expectations of their performance on an undergraduate psychology exam felt just as bad when those expectations came true as students who expected to do well.


So why would anyone choose to be pessimistic?

Optimism can blind us. Pessimism can correct your brain’s natural positive bias. Those who are the most optimistic about their own willpower are actually the most likely to give in to temptation.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted. For example, smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight. 

The reason you can predict your friends’ behavior better than they can is because we are all realistic about others’ actions and a little too optimistic about our own. Extremely happy people and very trusting people don’t fare as well as those who are more moderate.

In some situations, negative thinking offers a clear advantage.

If diagnosing problems is key to success, you don’t want to be looking on the bright side. Pessimistic entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed. Optimistic gamblers lose more money.

The best lawyers are pessimists. Martin Seligman, psychology professor at UPenn and author of Authentic Happiness, explains:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyersThe ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities.

A negative attitude, not a positive attitude, makes you more likely to learn from your mistakes. In fact, the shift to focusing on negative feedback is one of the marks of an expert mindset.

There’s even evidence that shallow efforts at optimism can make people feel worse.

Via The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

…those who began the process with low self-esteem became appreciably less happy as a result of telling themselves that they were lovable. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with – and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely solidified their negativity. ‘Positive thinking’ had made them feel worse.


So what’s the best outlook?

Does this seem like there’s no way to win? Totally contradictory?

Improvement requires a focus on the negative and an awareness of all the things that can go wrong. On the other hand, perfect execution requires irrational levels of self-confidence. So when the pressure is on, yes, top performers need to engage in a type of doublethink to be at their best.

Via Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success:

You have to make a decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses and the scope for failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute the shot as if there was never any doubt that you would nail it.

For most of us, though, those situations are rare. What should you take away from all this?

  1. The majority of the time, think positive. Happiness and health trump pretty much everything else.
  2. There are situations where negativity can help, like when we’re making high-stakes plans or trying to improve skills.

You don’t have to see everything through rose-colored glasses (in fact, that’s bad) but avoid taking a pessimistic attitude where negative events are seen as pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable. Try to see them more as local, temporary and changeable.

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