Optimism is an attitude based on the belief that an outcome will be good. The word comes from the Latin word, optimum, which means best. An optimist expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Pessimism is the general belief that an outcome will be bad. The pessimist tends to expect the worst outcome in any situation. Its Latin root is pessim, which means bad. We’ve all known optimists and pessimists, and optimists are definitely more pleasant to be around.
There are many advantages to being optimistic. Optimists respond better to stress. Research shows that optimists have lower levels of Cortisol (a stress hormone), and are better able to regulate that hormone when faced with stressful events. Other research has shown that optimists have a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression. Optimists even seem to recover more quickly from surgery.
Of course, it just makes sense that optimists will tend to be happier and more contented. They see any situation as more hopeful, thus improving motivation and effort. Other factors being equal, optimists tend to be more successful.
There are three key differences between optimistic and pessimistic thinking. They are:
Permanence: Optimistic people tend to see bad events as temporary, and good events as more permanent. They expect that they will bounce back more quickly after a failure. Optimists attribute negative events to specific, temporary causes, while viewing positive events as due to more permanent causes.
Pervasiveness: Pessimistic people see failure in one area of life as a failure in life as a whole. They overgeneralize the negative aspects of their lives, while perceiving positive events as exceptions to the rule or flukes. On the other hand, optimistic people see the negative events of life as the exception to the rule.
Personalization: Optimists blame outside causes for negative events, while perceiving positive events as the result of their hard work or abilities. Pessimists blame themselves for any negative events they experience, and discount their contributions to positive outcomes.
In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, Ph.D. argued that we can become more optimistic by changing our thinking. His method involves (a) understanding our pessimistic reactions and interpretations to negative events, (b) generating counter-evidence to our negative beliefs or interpretations, (c) catching and stopping our pessimistic thoughts, and (d) reminding ourselves of the benefits of positive expectations. These steps have to be practiced repeatedly over time to be successful.
A complete change from pessimism to optimism would be pretty difficult. But, with deliberate effort, you might be able to improve your thinking enough to make a difference. Try to expect a positive outcome. You just might get it.