Optimism vs Pessimism ... It Is Just a Way of Thinking!

Optimism vs Pessimism - it's not a fair fight! Research shows that people with an optimistic life-view tend to outperform pessimists in all respects. Even if you are more an optimist, than a pessimist, keep reading - as this article will help you (and helps you to assist others) use ever more of your potential, by helping you to understand:

  • The impact of your past experiences, on your current performance, and how to stop your past being your weak point
  • How others have trained you to view the world, and why that training could be your undoing
  • How to shift yourself and/or others from pessimistic thinking, which is limiting success

What The Studies Have To Say About Optimism vs Pessimism

Over the last 30-40 years, psychologists have studied the impact of our thoughts, expectations and beliefs on our behavior. They have found, that the way you reason with yourself about the things that happen to you, has a huge impact on your success - at work, home, school, in your community etc.

Pessimists are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events occur; they do worse at school, sports, and most jobs than their talents would suggest; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier relationships. Ouch ~ Seems like a bunch of good reasons to start to get a bit of the Pollyanna happening in your life!

Martin Seligman, (Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania), is known as the father of the positive psychology movement, and has done a lot of research on optimism vs pessimism. It is the groundbreaking research that he, and his team, have done in this arena, that is very much shaping our world - and is having a large impact on many high performance organizations. In this quick 2 minute video he shares his thoughts on optimism vs pessimism.

Optimism vs Pessimism - It's Learned - Which Means You Can Change It!

People, generally, are not born with either an Optimistic or Pessimistic view of the world. It is learned behavior - learned either through experience or through other people telling us who we are: "You are a great runner, you are a winner, you are a loser, you are useless, you are not good at maths, you are a great musician etc."

The terms frequently used to describe this phenomenon are, Learned Helplessness and Learned Optimism. And the great news is, that because this behavior is Learned, it can be Unlearned.

Dr Martin Seligman, in his (awesome) book, "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life", shows that people can dramatically impact their sense of well being and optimism, career options and confidence levels, by changing the way they think. He shares many tips on how you can train yourself to develop a more optimistic vs pessimistic outlook - and with a bit of focus you'll find them fairly painless to practice.

Go to the Authentic Happiness website to take the Optimism vs Pessimism test to see where you rate on the Optimism vs Pessimism scale. (You will need to subscribe, but it's a safe site, and the test you want is called the Optimism Test)

Optimism vs Pessimism A Real Life Example
How Two Team Leaders Handled the Same Productivity Improvement Challenge

Several years ago, I worked with two Team Leaders from opposite shifts. And two very different ways of thinking, you are unlikely to come across! Talk about optimism vs pessimism - these guys were almost polar opposites.

There was a drive within the plant, to improve productivity by around 30%, and at the same time to decrease scrap rates by about 12%.

The Pessimist's response: "This is impossible, can't be done, why should we even try to achieve such ridiculous targets?" The Optimistic Team Leader's response "Hmm, going to be tough to get, but let's see what we can do". Talk about a classic optimism vs pessimism response!

Within about six months, the Optimist's team had taken significant strides toward achieving both goals, and they were talking about how they were going to celebrate when they did reach the targets. The Pessimist's team had made some improvements, but only minimal, morale had slipped even further, and they were accusing the optimist's team of all sorts of under-hand behavior. The Pessimist Team Leader had become very defensive about why his team hadn't achieved similar results.

I was asked to work closely with the Pessimistic Team Leader, to see if I could help him to achieve the targets. Because of his world-view - "things don't go well/it's all too hard etc". I decided the only area I would work on with him, was to help him to shift to a more Optimistic view point - technically he knew all he needed, to help his team to make the improvements the business wanted.

Each day, I would challenge him to look for the things that were going right, and reward himself and his team, I asked him to be aware of how he was responding to new ideas/challenges, and to start to look for reasons why something might work, rather than why it wouldn't work, and shouldn't bother trying.

The shift was slow, but as he became more focused on looking for the opportunities vs the obstacles, his behavior changed, and as his behavior changed so too did his, (and his team's), results.

One of the turning points for him, was when I shared with him information about how to control his self-talk so that it led him more to the thinking patterns of success, than of 'give-up-itis'!

There are times when having a pessimistic view is beneficial. For example, if you are driving in thick fog it might be good to be focused on the fact that a car could be coming in the opposite direction!

Many studies have found that pessimists were more accurate in their assessments than optimists. For example, in one test researchers had people pressing a switch to turn a light on and off. Even when they had no control over whether the light came on or off, optimists still rated themselves as having a high degree of control over the light. Whereas, pessimists accurately predicted how much, or little control, they did indeed had over the light coming on or off.

So, in business it can be good to have some pessimists attached to your team, as they will often have a much stronger handle on reality than the optimists. Of course, these two groups are likely to drive each other nuts! So you, the team leader, will need to help the two groups value the perspective each bring, and make sure the balance is right, between hopeless and done deal!

Optimism vs Pessimism - The Three Crucial Elements: Permanent, Pervasive, Personal

Martin Seligman defined three crucial elements in the thinking styles which differentiate pessimists from optimists.

When something bad happens pessimists automatically think that the cause is:

  • Permanent: "It's going to last forever"
  • Pervasive: "It's going to undermine everything"" and
  • Personal: "It's my fault - I have a weak character and no skills"

Optimists in contrast have a strength, that allows them to interpret their setbacks as easy to overcome, and sure to last a short period of time (i.e not permanent), particular to a specific problem (i.e. not pervasive) and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people - and little to do with their own character or skills (i.e. not personal).

optimism vs pessimism

So let's take a closer look at Permanence and Pervasiveness, as in workshops I've run with leaders, these are the two aspects that often generate the most discussion, and questions.


Optimism vs Pessimism: When Bad Things Happen

Let's take a look at how the thinking is different for the two types when bad 'stuff' happens.

Scenario The Pessimist Thinks ...
"It Is Permanent"
The Optimist Thinks ...
"It Is Temporary""
Your boss tells you that your performance is not up to par "I'm all washed up here, may as well look for a new job" "I'm just exhausted at the moment"
You overeat at a restaurant, while trying to lose weight "Diets never work" "Diets don't work when you eat out"

When we are unsuccessful at something we all become, at least momentarily, down in the dumps, and maybe come to a screeching stop. However, those people who are optimistic, will pick themselves up and bounce back, very quickly. In other words, they are fairly resilient. Whereas the more pessimistic people can remain stuck, or bearing a grudge, (even after only small setbacks), which could last for days or months. If something major happens to them, they may never bounce back and lapse into long-lasting helplessness.

So, if when something bad happens the pessimist thinks 'its forever', and the optimist thinks 'this too will pass', how do they react when good things happen?

Optimism vs Pessimism: When Good Things Happen

You guessed it. When good things happen the optimists ride that band wagon to the limit - they think this is how it's meant to be... this is going to keep on going! And, even more empowering, they also believe that it was because of their great traits, and capabilities, that this came about.

And the pessimist? Yep - the pessimist they go straight to 'this ain't gonna last' ... he or she just knows this is too good to be true, and it had little to do with their skills - maybe more to do with some sort of special circumstance or luck.

The thinking is something like this for good events

Scenario The Pessimist Thinks ...
"It Is Temporary"
The Optimist Thinks ...
"It Is Permanent"
Name is pulled out of a barrel to win a holiday "My lucky day" "I'm always lucky"
Receives an award for outstanding work "I did try hard" "I'm talented"

People who believe good events have permanent causes, will try harder the next time. People who see temporary reasons for good events, may give up even when they succeed ... believing it was a fluke.


So, now we've covered permanence, now lets move to pervasiveness. People pretty much fall into two boxes when it comes to setbacks, or successes. Those who globalize events, and those who isolate events. Some people, when something bad happens, let that one problem bleed all over the rest of their life. For example, a person loses their job and it affects their marriage, their relationships, their health etc.

Whereas others, can put their troubles into a box, and go about their lives even when one important aspect (their job, for example) is crumbling.

It comes down to this: people who make global explanations for their problems, give up on everything when a crash happens in one area. People who make specific explanations, may become helpless in that one area of their life, but get on with the rest.

Optimism vs Pessimism: When Bad Things Happen

The thinking is something like this for bad events

Scenario The Pessimist Makes It Global The Optimist Confines It To The Specific Event
Your manager takes credit for work you did "All bosses are unprincipled" "Jim is unprincipled"
You ask a girl to dance and she walks away, laughing with her friends "I'm ugly" "I'm ugly to her"

Optimism vs Pessimism: When Good Things Happen

And you guessed it again - when good things happen it all gets reversed! The optimist believes good events will enhance everything s/he does, while the pessimist believes good events are caused by specific factors

The thinking is something like this for good events

Scenario The Pessimist Confines It To The Specific Event The Optimist Takes It Global
You get an 'A' in your math exam "I'm smart at math" "I'm smart"
You get a promotion "I've did good work on that last project" "I am very good at what I do"

Optimists, who make permanent and pervasive explanations for good events, as well as temporary and specific explanations for bad events, bounce back from troubles briskly, and get on a roll easily, when they succeed once. Pessimists, who make permanent and pervasive explanations for setbacks, tend to collapse under pressure - both for a long time and across situations - and rarely get on a roll.

So how do we improve optimism and hope? We do this by disputing pessimistic thoughts. A method, developed by Dr Albert Ellis, called ABCDE model. (how simple is that!) is a terrifically easy-to-use model. In fact I've used it with teams, when they have hit a setback which looks like it might derail them.

Optimism vs Pessimism - it's over to you to decide which style of thinking you want to dominate your life. It's over to you to decide the results you want in your life. Best of luck!

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