Are you a pessimistic optimist?(Yes?)

In this article, we are talking about the differences between optimism and pessimism, the paradox of being a pessimistic optimist, and how can we adopt more positive thinking. 

What is a pessimistic optimist?

A pessimistic optimist person is someone who is able to see that things will get better, even if today is a bad day.

A pessimistic optimist is precautious, thoughtful, often puts others first and believes that there is a sort of balance between the good things and the bad things that happen in the world. 

Optimism and pessimism

Optimism is a personality trait that consists of the ability to react to the problems we face in a way that shows the high confidence we have in ourselves and in our abilities.

In general, optimists tend to have positive expectations about the future, while pessimists tend to be negative. 

Optimism and pessimism, although they are two opposite ways of thinking and interpreting things, can best be explained if they are placed on a continuum, because the same person can evolve over time in terms of optimism or have doses different from the optimism with which he looks at aspects of his life (family, career, relationships, etc.). 

External factors can also intervene, such as the common weather outside, which can significantly influence our mood at a given time.

Optimism is closely linked to another concept, that of “hope”, both of which are an integral part of our cognition, emotions and motivation.

To hope, say the specialists, means to project in the future thought about the accomplishment of an objective, of a goal about which you have the conviction and the motivation that it will be fulfilled.

The difference between the two processes is that although both involve thinking that the future will be much better than the present, hope implies our role in making our future better. 

You can also understand the difference between optimism and pessimism better via jokes on them.

The differences between optimists and pessimists

Optimists focus on the full half of the glass, while pessimists rather see the empty one; it is about the different way in which everyone focuses only on those aspects that they tend to exaggerate and at the same time lose sight of the opposite ones: optimists are more attracted to positive stimuli and pessimists to negative ones. 

Optimists do not relate to the past and do not allow past failures to overwhelm them, unlike pessimists who place undue importance on the mistakes and failures they have had.

Optimists believe that the negative events they experience are temporary and do not affect other aspects of life, unlike pessimists, who tend to exaggerate the effects of a negative event and see it as permanent and general.

For negative situations, pessimists usually make internal assignments (consider themselves directly responsible for what happens to them), while optimists think that they have control over their lives and in their ability to maintain relationships with others. 

Optimists tend to see good things everywhere, they have more confidence in them than pessimists and the positive things the future holds for them.

If pessimists tend to notice the dangers and obstacles that prevent them from accomplishing something, optimists often identify potential opportunities.

In the face of challenges, optimists are more likely to react more quickly than pessimists, as the latter consider it unnecessary to make an effort.

In the organizational environment, pessimists and optimists also have different attitudes and reactions, especially when faced with change: optimists adapt more easily to new working conditions, discover opportunities and focus on their development, while more pessimistic employees are more depressed, fail to cope with change and often experience decreased performance.

The neural basis of optimism and pessimism

A study published in 2013 shows that optimism and pessimism have different locations in the brain. 

Thus, a positive, jovial and optimistic attitude, combined with a high level of self-esteem and confidence in a bright future were associated with the neurophysiological activity of the left hemisphere.

Negative tendencies, low self-esteem and pessimistic attitudes are linked to the right hemisphere. 

Research in this area has concluded that optimism is a personality trait that has had an evolutionary purpose throughout human history because positive expectations about the future have helped people survive.

Optimism still has a functional purpose, because it protects us against anxiety, depression and stimulates our motivation to be productive. 

Neuroscience studies have shown that subcortical regions that communicate with the frontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of the human brain, and are extremely important for other activities such as language and goal setting, are involved in designing positive thoughts about the future. 

The benefits of optimism

It seems that optimism is a universal trait of people, as well as the benefits it brings.

Thus, about 89% of the planet’s population, studies show, are optimistic that the future will be at least as good as the present, whether they live in a poor or developed state.

Also, variables such as education, gender or income do not have significant influences on the level of optimism, as we could easily believe. 

It has been shown that the higher and more positive expectations people have of their future, the more likely they are to happen.

In psychology, this process is called the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilment of prophecies.

These effects were observed in the school environment, but were then extrapolated in general: students from whom teachers had high expectations obtained a much better school performance than others.

“Prophecies” are fulfilled because the people concerned are motivated and make an effort not to disappoint and somehow reward those who trusted them.

Research on the effects of optimism supports the benefits that a positive, optimistic attitude has on many aspects of life: health and longevity, relationships with others, school, work, sports, etc. 

Health benefits

The positive effects that optimism brings to our health are impressive.

Most studies show that optimists recover much faster from diseases, have a greater tolerance to pain, become more immune to disease, women have a pregnancy and much easier birth, etc. 

A longitudinal study of about 1,000 American participants showed that an optimistic explanatory style protects against heart disease, while pessimists have faced several cases of such conditions: angina pectoris, in fact, and even diseases that they resulted in death. 

In a meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between optimism and physical health, the results also highlighted the beneficial influence of optimism on a wide variety of health aspects: reducing pain, improving the symptoms of serious diseases such as cancer, decreasing the chances of losing a pregnancy, physical recovery from a transplant, etc. 

Longevity benefits

Optimism also correlates positively with longevity. A study conducted in Denmark and published in 2013 the results of an analysis of the mortality rate in the elderly born in 1905 showed that optimism can be considered a significant predictor of longevity: optimists lived longer on average than pessimists and those neutral in terms of optimism-pessimism, and in terms of gender, optimistic women have higher longevity than optimistic men. 

Performance benefits

In a study conducted by Martin Seligman in the 1990s, participants (volunteers who volunteered) were given erroneous feedback after taking a speed test in swimming: they were told that they scored much poorer than they actually got. 

They repeated the test, but the results were significantly different between swimmers than in the first test: the optimists swam at about the same speed as the first time, while the pessimists had much lower performance.

This example shows that in a stressful situation optimists try to cope and strive to overcome a problem, while pessimists give up trying to prove it.

In another study, Seligman wanted to see the relationship between optimism and productivity for salespeople with different levels of experience (a year or two).

The results showed a positive correlation between the level of sales and the level of optimism as the experience increased, but it is not possible to say exactly whether for those with more experience optimism led to increased sales or success made them more optimistic.

Optimism also has beneficial effects on creativity. Optimistic people are confident that they will be able to solve a problem, only that they have to figure out what to do and then the brain is trained to find solutions.

Instead, pessimists tend to see the problem as much more serious than it is and consider it permanent, which generally excludes the possibility of finding a solution.

Achieving the proposed goals also seems to be influenced by the degree of optimism: a study conducted in Israel showed that optimistic people who set out to lose weight managed to lose more pounds (even if their goals were much higher) than the pessimists. 

The paradox of optimism

The bias of optimism is a paradox that people generally tend to be more optimistic than they normally should be.

Although probably everyone has an equal chance of something positive or negative happening to them, we tend to believe that we will have more good things and less negative things than the others.

Is this the reason why many times when we get sick or have a negative event we tend to wonder why it is happening to us? 

Experts say that we tend to think positively even when we have faced failure in the past.

But why do we continue to think irrationally optimistic when reality shows us that we are often wrong? 

An explanation that researchers have found for this “error” is found in the brain: studies have shown that people generally have very inaccurate memories of what happened to them in the past.

When we think about the future, the brain uses the same neural structures, building a similar type of “memories of the future,” which are just as inaccurate. 

In some studies, participants described the future in a much more positive light than the pleasant events of the past they experienced.

On the other hand, if we did not have the hope and confidence that we would succeed, despite previous unpleasant experiences and regardless of the obstacles we encounter, what would motivate us to set out?

How to become more optimistic

An important argument that pessimists invoke for their way of thinking is that if you do not have high expectations about the future, you will no longer be disappointed and unhappy. 

At first glance, this argument seems plausible, but studies show that whether the results are positive or negative, all the optimists, who had high expectations, feel better than the pessimists.

The explanation: it matters how we interpret events, or we have seen the tendency of pessimists and optimists to do so. 

One of the most important things that Martin Seligman, who studied this process intensely, learned from his research was that optimism is a trait that can be learned and not one that we are born with. 

But turning from a pessimist to an optimist is certainly not easy. There are no miraculous methods in this regard because it is ultimately about changing the mentality.

But there are a few small steps that can be taken in this regard:

Staying as close as possible to optimistic people, their positive feelings are contagious.

Let’s be as fair as possible to ourselves and try to set ourselves as realistic goals as possible, in order to avoid disappointments.

Let us no longer compare ourselves with others in a competitive way, a comparison from which we may suffer, but rather understand that each of us has his own qualities and strengths.

Let us consciously try to look for the positive aspects in difficult and negative situations, even if at the moment we would be tempted to see the only disaster.

Let’s pay attention to our body and health: a balanced diet, exercise, proper sleep duration; the more physically fit we look and feel, the more optimistic we are likely to be. 

Let’s look for funny things around us every day that make us laugh or at least smile. Laughter and smile have beneficial effects on our mood.

Let’s try to be positive first and foremost with ourselves. In this sense, an exercise we can do is to talk to ourselves as we would to other people, not to be very critical and harsh more than we would to others, but rather to encourage and to be understanding. 

Let us all find our inner pessimistic optimist. 

FAQ about pessimistic optimist

What is a pessimistic optimist?

A pessimistic optimist person is someone who is able to see that things will get better, even if today is a bad day.

Is someone who can see both the empty and the full part of the glass.

Can a person be optimistic and pessimistic?

Yes, a person can be both optimistic and pessimistic. In this case, we are calling them pessimistic optimists.

These people still have fears and negative thoughts about things, but they can also see the good in what happened and hope for the best. 

What is the difference between optimistic and pessimistic?

The difference between optimistic and pessimistic is that optimists focus on the full half of the glass, while pessimists rather see the empty one; it is about the different way in which everyone focuses only on those aspects that they tend to exaggerate and at the same time lose sight of the opposite ones: optimists are more attracted to positive stimuli and pessimists to negative ones. 

Is being pessimistic a disorder?

No, being pessimistic is not a disorder.

However, pessimism may be a sign of mental disorders like depression or anxiety. 


Optimism and survival: does an optimistic outlook predict better survival at advanced ages? A twelve-year follow-up of Danish nonagenarians

Optimism, pessimism, and false failure feedback: Effects on vigilance performance

I Can Tell You If I ll Really Lose All That Weight: Dispositional and Situated Optimism as Predictors of Weight Loss Following a Group Intervention

The Science of Our Optimism Bias and the Life-Cycle of Happiness

Positive thinking: Reduce stress by eliminating negative self-talk

Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!