Is It Safer to Be Pessimistic?

Is Optimism Really More Beneficial?

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Pessimists sometimes are better prepared for tough times. If you’re a pessimist, you may foresee obstacles more readily, expect things to go wrong, and perhaps plan for difficulties more readily. Pessimists are more likely to build safety nets, and pessimists don’t find their world views coming into question when things go wrong; they already expect that to happen! So why don’t I recommend that people become pessimists?

Benefits of Optimism

Scientific research in the field of Positive Psychology tells us that optimists gain so many benefits from their world view that it may be worth the added disappointment they may face in setbacks: optimists tend to be healthier, happier, more successful (financially, socially, and in many other ways), and enjoy stronger and more satisfying relationships. If this sounds like optimists fare better in virtually every area of life, that’s because it’s true. (Read more about the benefits of optimism.)

The Difference Between Optimists and Pessimists

Right now, optimism is sounding pretty great, and it is. But before I go on, I want to explain the difference between an optimist and a pessimist: it all has to do with explanatory style or the way people interpret what happens in their lives. An optimist will take positive events and magnify them, while minimizing the negative in a situation; a pessimist will do the opposite and downplay the positive while really focusing on the negative. (There’s a specific way in which this happens; read more about it in the article about traits of optimists.) This is important because the tendency to minimize the negative—one of the traits that encourages optimists to dream big and emboldens them to keep on trying even after they face setbacks—can also produce a false sense of security that may cause optimists to fail to conceive of possible difficulties and plan for them. It may also lead them to feel surprised when things don’t go their way.

However, these very traits—minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive—can help an optimist through tough times that could send a pessimist to a darker, more helpless place. Even when things seem to be falling apart, an optimist will seek new solutions instead of dwelling on problems; they’ll have hope to get through hard times, and trust that they’ll come out the other side soon enough; they’ll have the wherewithal to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Therefore, pessimists may be less surprised when crises occur, but optimists don’t stay in negative situations for as long; they find a way to dig themselves out.

Stay Optimistic While Still Being Prepared

So how can you stay optimistic without missing opportunities to keep yourself prepared for crises? Here’s what I recommend:

  • Hope for the best, and plan for the worst.
    • This allows you to have many benefits of optimism without leaving yourself vulnerable and unprepared. Like a pessimist think about things that can possibly go wrong, and try to find back-up plans and contingencies for dealing with the unexpected. (This can help you to feel more prepared if things take a turn in a less desirable direction, and can help you remember that different paths can still work.)
  • Remember what’s important.
    • Savor what you have, and also remind yourself that you are more than what you have; you have strength independent of things in your life that give you power. You may want to take time, periodically, to take inventory of your own strengths and resources. Stress results when we feel the demands of a situation exceed our resources to handle them; keeping in mind what your resources are can reduce stress and help you feel empowered as you move through life. This can really help when you’re facing a crisis.
  • Cultivate gratitude.
    • Be grateful for what you have, without becoming so attached to it that you can’t imagine your life without it. This is a tricky one, and takes practice, but ultimately can be done and is a worthy goal. The practices of mindfulness and meditation have been helpful for many in this regard.
  • Expect the unexpected.
    • If things don’t go according to plan, it doesn’t mean that this is the end of the story. There are gifts in every situation, even those that we don’t expect.
  • Remember that whatever you face will pass.
    • One thing that Positive Psychology research has taught us is that major setbacks do not cause people to feel unhappy for as long as people predict. After a few weeks or, in some cases, months, people who have experienced a major crisis generally return to their regular level of happiness (or unhappiness). Optimists tend to feel happier in general, and pessimists tend to feel less happy than that, but if you’re a pessimist, it’s always possible to be a ‘learned optimist’. Sometimes enduring a crisis provides you with just the right motivation to do that. (Read this article for more on how to become an optimist.)
  • Value what you have, in any situation.
    • Even if you’ve lost a lot, there are still things that you have to cherish. Studies show that, other than those in poverty, people with a lot of money generally aren’t happier than people with a little; lottery winners, even, aren’t significantly happier than those who have lost the use of their legs, once a few months have passed. But those who have close friends, those who feel gratitude, and those who have a sense of meaning in life the happiest. Focus on what you still have, and you’ll feel like you have some really good things in your life.
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Article Sources

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  • Peterson, C. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.

  • Seligman, M. E. P. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002.