What Is Pessimism?

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What Is Pessimism?

Pessimism is defined by the American Psychological Association as "the attitude that things will go wrong and that people’s wishes or aims are unlikely to be fulfilled." A person with a pessimistic personality tends toward a more negative—or some might say, realistic—view of life. Optimists, on the other hand, see things more positively.

Pessimists usually expect negative outcomes and are suspicious when things seem to be going well. Optimists expect good things to happen and look for the silver lining when life doesn't go their way.

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

How Do You Know?

How can you tell if you tend to be more pessimistic? Some signs 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 always 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 own abilities.
  • You tend to focus on your flaws or weaknesses rather than your strengths.
  • You often feel annoyed by other people's sunny optimism.
  • You often engage in negative self-talk.
  • You assume that all good things will come to an end eventually.
  • You find it easier to live with the status quo than change things for the better.

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

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The Optimism-Pessimism Spectrum

Psychologists view pessimism and optimism as a spectrum with each of our viewpoints and personalities situated somewhere along that line. At either end of the spectrum, the pure pessimist may be miserable and the pure optimist may be detached from reality.

Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the pessimism-optimism spectrum.

Everyone has their ups and downs when thinking is more negative or positive. Life circumstances and the effects of time and experience can also impact our relative pessimism or optimism.

People are also often more optimistic about one area of life and less optimistic about another. However, people's moods and thinking usually lean toward one end or the other of that spectrum resulting in personalities that are more or less pessimistic or optimistic.

There are many reasons why certain people end up with a more or less negative personality, including:

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

Those with more pessimistic outlooks tend to have lower social support, lower resilience, lower ability to cope with stress, and a greater propensity for depression and anxiety disorders.

Impact of Thinking Styles

One key difference between how an optimist and a pessimist thinks has to do with their explanatory style, which is essentially 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 heightening focus on the negative.

The tendency to minimize the negative—one of the traits of optimists 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.

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 have pointed to the conclusion that it's more important for good health to be less pessimistic than it is to be more optimistic. In other words, you don't need to be overly cheery to reap the benefits of not being overly negative. The key seems to come from limiting the negative health impact of overly pessimistic thoughts, while purely positive thinking doesn't have as big an effect.

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. Specifically, 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. This means that they are more likely to plan for difficulties. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that negative thinkers are also more likely to build safety nets, are more prepared (practically and emotionally) when things go wrong, and don’t find their world views in crisis when bad things do happen.

A 2013 study 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.

Risks of Pessimism

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

  • 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, as well as overall mortality.
  • Pessimists tend to have greater stress and fewer coping skills. One study showed that in older people, pessimism is also 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.

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

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

Looked at a certain way, 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 great relationship satisfaction in dating couples.
  • Greater optimism also is related to an increased likelihood of seeking out social support in times of stress and hardship and lower levels of interpersonal conflicts.
  • Higher levels of optimism in married couples are also correlated with better health. 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, as they tend to focus on finding solutions rather than ruminating about what went wrong.

Tips / Tricks

So 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 pessimistic thinking has to offer, think about the things that can possibly go wrong, and try to find backup plans and contingencies for dealing with the unexpected. Then, focus on the positive while keeping these backup plan options in mind.

Remember What’s Important

Savor and remember what you have and aim to cultivate gratitude. Make time 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 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

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 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. 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.

In fact, 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.

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