Yes both optimists and pessimists alike have tended to earn bad reputations in different ways over time - from the Debbie Downer or cynical New Yorker scrooging through life, to the Pollyanna type that gets into trouble for being unrealistic and naive.
But when we dig a little deeper into the actual differences in mindset between more optimistic people and more pessimistic ones, we start to see how we, too, are constantly choosing between the subtle differences in these approaches in our everyday challenges and decisions, and just how tangible the effects of two very different perspectives can have on our greater lives.
Optimistic and Pessimistic Thinking
To begin, the simple yet most significant difference between optimism and pessimism is that optimism is the expectation that good things will happen in one’s life, while pessimism is the expectation that bad things will instead.
Why are some people more optimistic than others? It’s important to note here that while some people are innately more optimistic than others, optimistic thinking can be learned, and can change over time or depending on the circumstance. Thus, optimism is often tied to our accumulated experiences.
Let’s take school for example: Isolating for other variables, kids who do well in school may tend to develop more optimistic outlooks on their futures, while those who do poorly become subject to more pessimistic thinking. As we all know, life’s a lot more complicated than just our performance K-12, and you can start to quickly see how things like trauma at home, access to tutors, or success and failure in sports early on can start to add up.
Our views of the future can also significantly be affected by major change - such as a quarter or midlife crisis, divorce, loss of a job, etc. As a straight-A student who had the privilege of being optimistic by experience, I can tell you first hand how quickly making a career change shook my long held sense of confidence. Whereas at 18 I could see myself crushing it at “whatever I wanted to be when I grow up” through countless majors and internships, by 28, jaded by the realities of how common failure actually is in the workplace, I could hardly muster an ounce of hope in being successful at virtually anything ever again (Super black-and-white thinking, and something we’ll hopefully get to in a future post...)
Even perfectionism can pose a great challenge to optimism! When you set your standards too high to meet, you build up a perceived experience repertoire of “failure,” and start to develop doubt about your adequacy. Realistic and attainable goals (and influences across the board) are crucial to building our sense of positive outcomes and therefore positive future expectations.
How Does Optimism Affect Our Behavior?
In conducting several experiments with dogs the 1960’s (in ways definitely not considered kosher today), psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson found they cultivated a state of what they would eventually come to call “learned helplessness.” The experimental group of dogs was first exposed to shocks that they couldn’t avoid or escape (i.e. over which they had no “control”). Later, when the same dogs were put in a situation in which they could actively perform a response to terminate the shock, they instead sat passively. They had “learned” helplessness and continued to assume their fate was out of their control. In contrast, dogs in the control group who had not previously been exposed to the unavoidable shock, quickly found the response to terminate it and successfully avoided the new one.
Can you think of a time in your life in which an undesirable outcome was completely outside of your control? Did it affect the way you responded to the situation going forward, perhaps even after circumstances may have changed? Some might argue this is one of the greatest detriments to growing up in disadvantaged or oppressed communities or societies. While in society we often attribute fault in these scenarios to things like lack of “effort,” psychologically, people in such circumstances can quickly become passive and hopeless. Lacking a sense of control or agency with which to change, it’s no wonder many choose simply instead to numb.
Another way optimism affects our behavior is in our response in the face of challenge. In therapy, we often categorize orientations to problems as approach or avoidant. Not surprisingly, more optimistic people tend to actively approach adversity, addressing challenges head on through problem-focused coping, and turn to more positive coping mechanisms such as acceptance, humor and reframing when it can’t be solved. On the other hand, more pessimistic people are more likely to avoid, deny, and become disengaged.
These different approaches to problem solving can be significant in their likelihood of leading to desirable or undesirable outcomes, of course only furthering the cycle of optimistic or pessimistic thinking.
How to Change Your Thinking
Ok, ok, always the golden question - let’s go through some of the research to understand how we can re-approach a more positive, optimistic way of thinking about the future.
1. Decatastrophize your explanations
Expanding on the theory of learned helplessness, psychologists studied people’s “explanatory styles,” i.e. way of attributing or explaining uncontrollable events in their lives, and found three major differences in perceptions of permanence (how long the negative will last), globality (how far the negative outcome expands into other areas), and locus of control (how much the negative is attributed to you or some outside force).
Key word being perception.
So, as you find yourself in the middle of challenging circumstances, go through the following checklist and see if you can start to move explanations from more pessimistic to more positive....
From permanent (“it’s never going to end”) to temporary (“this too shall pass”)
From global (“I’m a failure at everything”) to specific (“it was only one grade”)
From internal (“it’s all my fault”) to external (“it was out of my control”)
2. Identify alternative paths
Positive psychologist Charles R. Synder developed a theory that defined hope as one’s perceived ability to successfully find different paths in order to achieve goals.
This was actually a new way of looking at hope to me, as I had always seen it interchangeably with the idea of “faith” - that something is out of your control but will work out regardless - or even simply the idea of “positive thinking” and intention (“I hope…”)
Instead, this definition clearly puts the power of hope in the hands of the doer. While it’s more helpful to attribute uncontrollable negative events to external forces, here understanding that positive outcomes are - to an extent - within our control can be exponentially more motivating than simply “hoping” that something will work out well (but ultimately feeling like it’s 50/50).
Now, if you’re coming from a more pessimistic viewpoint (as I was when I was in the middle of my quarter life crisis), it may be harder to imagine that you actually can and will succeed in this effort. This is because Snyder’s theory relies firstly on the concept of agency - or sense of personal control and the belief not only that you can, but you will be able to perform successfully in certain scenarios.
However Snyder’s theory also relies on the idea of pathways thinking, which is the understanding that there are multiple routes to success. While it can be easy to slip into all-or-nothing thinking, we have to constantly remind ourselves that things aren’t black and white, and that we can’t internalize individual bumps in the road. When one route doesn’t work out, there is almost always another, and our belief in such thus creates hope.
So ask yourself, when you hit a wall, does it look like the guy on the left? Or can you zoom out and find a way to get around it?
The best part? As you can see, finding alternative routes to success often asks you to grow more than you would had you never met that bump in the road. Take them as beautiful opportunities stretch, jump higher, and learn. (Or maybe that’s just the optimistic thinker in me…)
3. Find a Therapist & Train Your Brain
And, of course, practice makes perfect. When you catch yourself thinking pessimistically, take a step back and see if you can challenge and change the thought. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically, is a popular form of therapy that actively helps change negative thoughts and distortions, and has been shown to help individuals explain events more optimistically.
In fact, even just starting therapy can often produce positive change - regardless of treatment - as psychologist Lori Irving suggests that simply fostering the newfound belief that one can get better can provide an increase in agency thinking.
So what’s it all got to do with happiness at the end of the day? Well, by now it should be pretty clear that - with some exceptions - by and large optimistic thinking greatly increases your chances of actively pursuing and achieving your goals. And, if you’ve been paying attention to most of my previous posts, a huge source of our happiness is the journey. Negative emotions arise from perceived stagnation and setback. However positive emotions stem from perceived progress toward our goals. Optimism, growth, and positive emotions continue to send us on an upward spiral toward more optimism, growth and positive emotion.
Now, of course, I wouldn’t leave you without the caveat that psychology is still not as simple as “thinking positively” and that too much optimism can also be a bad thing - especially when it causes us to overestimate our abilities, avoid difficult feelings, or neglect reality. Likewise, a healthy dose of skepticism or pessimism has the potential to serve you if kept in check and used well.
For example, social psychologist Nancy Candor describes “defensive pessimism” as a strategy to effectively manage anxiety by both managing expectations and envisioning possible negative outcomes in order to prepare for or avoid them. Some companies use a similar technique through the practice of “pre-mortems,” where teams go through everything that could go wrong in order to set themselves up for better success.
As always, understanding how to apply what combination of thinking and where is a matter of balance you’ll learn for yourself both over time and through actually doing the work.
Food for Thought
Two thoughts I’m left with this week at it relates to this topic.
First is the idea of being intentional with the media that we consume. It’s no great secret that there is a natural bias toward the negative in most news media, and our constant focus on crime or Congress’s inability to get anything done over things like scientific breakthroughs and progress certainly skews our understanding of the actual state of the world. However, the consequences seem even more considerable when looked at through the lens of learned helplessness. Does passively consuming a constant stream of gridlocked politics or corporate corruption over which we often feel we have little control not only desensitize us, but make us feel helpless to the point of inaction and compliance? How much does power and established authority benefit from us accepting the shock, and assuming non-response?
Second is the interesting layers to the idea of “future thinking.” In mindfulness, meditation, and many forms of therapy, we’re often encouraged to get out of the default mode network in our brain, which is responsible for constantly thinking about the past and future, and thus often causes anxiety, rumination, worry and that ever-nagging feeling that we “should” be doing something.
However, thinking about the future can be highly inspiring, as optimistic thinking will show you. Whether it’s visualizing success, new opportunities, or your best life, thinking about the future as a blank page pregnant with possibilities can be (for some) a beautiful way to cultivate happiness and positivity. Perhaps the biggest difference is being intentional - rather letting your mind frivolously wander or get caught up in narratives about everything that can go wrong, ruminate on everything that you want to go right.
As our professor Dr. Peabody put it: “Dwell in the possibilities.”
*Disclaimer: I am not yet a licensed therapist or clinical provider, nor have I yet completed a degree in psychology. From time to time on this blog I include my attempt to reflect on and consolidate research, opinions and information from a wide variety of sources and disciplines. While I have tried my best to be as accurate and judicious as possible in what I share and how I share it, I apologize in advance for any misuse of concepts, terminology, or representations.