What Is Pessimism?

Glass Half Full Half Empty
Rick Gayle Studio / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Pessimism?

Pessimism is not a mental illness, but a personality trait in which someone has a more negative—or some might say, realistic—view of life. A pessimist usually expects unfavorable outcomes and is suspicious when things seem to be going well.

APA Definition of Pessimism

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines pessimism as "the attitude that things will go wrong and that people’s wishes or aims are unlikely to be fulfilled."

Pessimism is not a trait most people aspire to. It's associated with negativity, a "glass half-full" attitude, depression, and other mood disorders. However, a healthy dose of negative thinking isn't necessarily all bad.

While we're often told to smile, think of the bright side, and make lemonade from lemons, that's not always practical, advisable, or healthy. In fact, sometimes a little pessimism might actually be a good thing.

Pessimism vs. Optimism

Pessimism is the opposite of optimism. While someone with pessimism often has a negative view of life, someone with optimism sees things from a positive point of view—tending to look at the benefits of things versus focusing on their disadvantages.

For example, someone with pessimism may look at a rainy day and think of how it has ruined their plans or how miserable they will be when they get wet. Someone with optimism would look at the same rainy day and think of how the water will be good for the flowers or be excited that they may see a rainbow.

Recap

Pessimists expect bad things to happen and tend to look at the downside of things while optimists expect good things to happen and look for the silver lining when life doesn't go their way.

The Pessimism-Optimism Spectrum

Psychologists view pessimism and optimism as being on a line. At one end of the line lies a pure pessimist, who may believe that life has no meaning or purpose (nihilism) or have a lot of cynicism. At the other end is the pure optimist, who might be so positive that they are detached from reality.

Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the pessimism-optimism spectrum. Everyone has their ups and downs, when their way of thinking is more negative or positive. Life circumstances and the effects of time and experience also impact our relative pessimism or optimism.

People can be more optimistic about one area of life and less optimistic about another. However, one's way of thinking usually leans toward one end of the spectrum. This results in a personality that is more or less pessimistic.

Signs of Pessimism

How can you tell if you or someone you know may be a pessimistic person? Signs of pessimism include:

  • You feel surprised when things actually work out.
  • You don't go after what you want because you think you will probably fail.
  • You tend to focus on what can go wrong in a situation.
  • You think that the risks almost always outweigh the benefits.
  • You experience imposter syndrome and undervalue your abilities.
  • You tend to concentrate on your flaws or weaknesses rather than your strengths.
  • You often feel annoyed by people with an optimistic demeanor.
  • You often engage in negative self-talk.
  • You assume that all good things will eventually come to an end.
  • You find it easier to live with the status quo than change things for the better.

While you may not experience all of these signs of pessimism or think this way all the time, pessimists tend to engage in many of these types of thinking to some degree.

Press Play for Advice On Combatting Imposter Syndrome

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares a science-backed way to beat imposter syndrome. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Causes of Pessimism

There are many reasons why certain people might end up with a more pessimistic personality. They include:

  • Genetics
  • Family dynamics
  • Past experiences
  • Social and environmental factors

One study of 5,187 teenage twins and their siblings suggests that genetics may account for one-third of the variance in whether someone leans toward pessimism vs. optimism, with the remaining variance due to their environment.

One key difference between how an optimist and a pessimist thinks has to do with their explanatory style. This is is the way in which people interpret or explain what happens in their lives.

For example, if someone with pessimism does poorly on a test, they may interpret this negative result as a personal shortcoming or that they aren't intelligent. Someone with optimism may attribute low test scores to simply being tired that day or it being a difficult test.

Impact of Pessimism

Those with more pessimistic outlooks tend to have less social support, lower resilience, a reduced ability to cope with stress, and a greater propensity for depression and anxiety disorders. Having a tendency toward pessimism can also impact your outlook on life.

A pessimist will often downplay the positives in a situation while heightening their focus on the negative. An optimist will do the opposite, magnifying positive events while minimizing the negatives in a situation.

The tendency to minimize the negative—one trait that encourages optimists to dream big and keep trying even after setbacks—can produce a false sense of security that leads to a failure to conceive and plan for possible difficulties. It may also cause an optimist to feel surprised when things don’t go their way.

At the same time, minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive can help an optimist through the same tough times that could send a pessimist to a darker, more helpless place.

An optimist may seek new solutions instead of dwelling on problems. They’ll often have hope for the future and the coping skills to get through hard times, setting them up to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

Numerous studies suggest that it's more important for good health to be less pessimistic than more optimistic. In other words, you don't need to be overly cheery to reap the benefits of not being overly negative. Limiting the negative health impact of overly pessimistic thoughts appears to have more effect than purely positive thinking.

Benefits of Pessimism

While the factors that contribute to pessimism are mostly negative, pessimism does have an upside. In fact, there can be some real benefits to a healthy dose of pessimism.

Pessimists are often better prepared for tough times and may avoid risks that more optimistic thinkers might ignore. Research has shown that pessimists tend to foresee obstacles more readily since they expect things to go wrong, meaning that they are more likely to plan for difficulties.

For example, one 2013 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that negative thinkers are more likely to build safety nets. They're also more prepared practically and emotionally when things go wrong and don’t find their worldviews in crisis when bad things do happen.

Another 2013 study, this one in Psychology and Aging, found a correlation between underestimating future life satisfaction with positive health outcomes and longevity in older adults. In other words, the study found that thinking your life would not go well was linked with some health benefits.

Pessimism can be a positive or a negative, having both types of impacts on one's life.

Risks of Pessimism

There are several clear drawbacks of too much pessimism. Some of the major pitfalls of being overly pessimistic are:

  • Dwelling on negative thoughts is bad for well-being. Studies suggest that women may have higher rates of depression because they have higher rates of rumination, brooding, and reflection. Rumination and brooding are both components of pessimistic thinking.
  • Overly negative thinking contributes to depression and anxiety. Key symptoms of anxiety disorders are excessive worry, rumination, and worst-case scenario thinking. Likewise, low mood, negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and worry are not only characteristics of pessimistic thinkers, but also factors in depression.
  • Pessimism contributes to negative health effects. A negative outlook is associated with a number of other heightened health risks, such as heart disease and overall mortality.
  • Pessimists tend to have greater stress and fewer coping skills. One study showed that in older people, pessimism was correlated with higher stress levels, more focus on the less positive parts of their life, and a greater tendency to look back on life with more negativity in general, reducing life satisfaction.

Pessimistic people tend to experience more isolation, greater conflict and stress, poorer health, and reduced well-being. Conversely, optimists experience healthier stress levels and a higher perception of life satisfaction.

A 2015 study found that "higher optimism was associated with better physiological adjustment to a stressful situation, while higher pessimism was associated with worse psychological adjustment to stress."

Another worrisome component of pessimism is that it may make stressful situations feel worse than they actually are. On the other hand, more optimistic thinking can help significantly when coping with challenging events.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Optimism

One of the biggest risks of being a pessimist is not being an optimist. Significant scientific research has found that optimists tend to be healthier, happier, more successful (financially, socially, and in many other ways), and enjoy stronger and more satisfying relationships.

But living on the bright side isn't always sunny. Drawbacks of optimism include a greater propensity for taking unwarranted risks in terms of personal health and safety—such as not buckling a seatbelt or not getting a vaccine—or in finances, such as investing in a risky business venture.

Even when considering the possible drawbacks, the benefits of optimism are huge.

  • Positive thinking is correlated with greater relationship satisfaction in dating couples.
  • Greater optimism is also related to an increased likelihood of seeking out social support in times of stress and hardship, along with lower levels of interpersonal conflicts.
  • Higher levels of optimism in married couples are correlated with better health as studies have shown that one partner's level of optimism plays a role in promoting the health of both partners.
  • Optimism is associated with warmer, more outgoing personality types, and pessimism is associated with more hostile and submissive interpersonal styles.
  • Research has linked optimism to increased longevity.
  • Optimism is also associated with greater life satisfaction, coping skills, social support, and resilience.

Pessimists may be less surprised when crises occur, but optimists don’t stay in negative situations for as long since they tend to focus on finding solutions rather than ruminating about what went wrong.

Living With Pessimism

How can you stay optimistic without missing opportunities to keep yourself prepared for crises? There are a number of steps you can take.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

The approach of hoping for the best and planning for the worst allows you to enjoy the many benefits of optimism without leaving yourself vulnerable and unprepared. To get the benefits that pessimism has to offer, think about the things that can possibly go wrong and create backup plans and contingencies for dealing with the unexpected. Then, focus on the positives while keeping these backup plans in mind.

Remember What’s Important

Savor and remember what you have and aim to cultivate gratitude. Stress results when we feel that the demands of a situation exceed our resources to handle them. So, make time to take inventory of your strengths and resources.

Keeping your available resources in mind can reduce stress and help you feel empowered as you move through life. This way of thinking can really help when you’re facing a crisis.

Practicing mindfulness is another helpful strategy. Mindfulness is a technique that involves focusing on the here and now rather than worrying about the past and future.

Remember That Whatever You Face Will Pass

Positive psychology research has taught us that major setbacks do not cause people to feel unhappy for as long as people predict. After a few weeks or 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. If you’re a pessimist, it’s always possible to learn how to become an optimist. Sometimes enduring a crisis provides you with just the right motivation to do that.

A Word From Verywell

"Making the best of things" may be a cliché, but this approach can be the key to good health, longevity, and enjoyment of life. In fact, studies show that, other than those in poverty, people with a lot of money generally aren’t happier than people with a little.

It's those who have close friends and a strong sense of community, those who feel gratitude, and those who have a sense of meaning in life who feel the happiest. The bottom line is that an overall lean toward optimism is ideal—with a bit of pessimism thrown in.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Pessimism.

  2. Mavioğlu RN, Boomsma DI, Bartels M. Causes of individual differences in adolescent optimism: a study of Dutch twins and their siblings. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2015;24:1381-1388. doi:10.1007/s00787-015-0680-x

  3. Whitfield JB, Zhu G, Landers JG, Martin NG. Pessimism is associated with greater all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, but optimism is not protectiveSci Rep. 2020;10(1):12609. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-69388-y

  4. Smith TW, Ruiz JM, Cundiff JM, Baron KG, Nealey-Moore JB. Optimism and pessimism in social context: An interpersonal perspective on resilience and risk. J Res Pers. 2013;47(5):553-562. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2013.04.006

  5. Lang FR, Weiss D, Gerstorf D, Wagner GG. Forecasting life satisfaction across adulthood: Benefits of seeing a dark future? Psychol Aging. 2013;28(1):249-61. doi:10.1037/a0030797

  6. Johnson DP, Whisman MA. Gender differences in rumination: A meta-analysis. Pers Individ Dif. 2013;55(4):367-374. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.03.019

  7. Rood L, Roelofs J, Bögels SM, Alloy LB. Dimensions of negative thinking and the relations with symptoms of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents. Cognit Ther Res. 2010;34(4):333-342. doi:10.1007/s10608-009-9261-y

  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression.

  9. Puig-Perez S, Pulopulos MM, Hidalgo V, Salvador A. Being an optimist or a pessimist and its relationship with morning cortisol release and past life review in healthy older people. Psychol Health. 2018;33(6):783-799. doi:10.1080/08870446.2017.1408807

  10. Puig-Perez S, Villada C, Pulopulos MM, Almela M, Hidalgo V, Salvador A. Optimism and pessimism are related to different components of the stress response in healthy older people. Int J Psychophysiol. 2015;98(2 Pt 1):213-21. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.09.002

  11. Kim, ES, Chopik WJ, Smith J. Are people healthier if their partners are more optimistic? The dyadic effect of optimism on health among older adults. J Psychosomatic Res. 2014;76,6:447-53. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2014.03.104

  12. Lee LO, James P, Zevon ES, et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2019;116(37):18357-18362. doi:10.1073/pnas.1900712116

  13. Mineo L. Good genes are nice, but joy is better. The Harvard Gazette.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.