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Optimism and pessimism – why both are good for you

2. May 2016 in
Optimism and pessimism

Do you sometimes worry that you are too negative? That things would work out better if you could just be more positive?

You are probably not the only one.

Within the last decades, we were told that optimism made us healthier, happier and more successful. Positive fantasies appeared to be half the battle when it came to goal-reaching. But is it really that easy?

We might have been too negative about negativity. Both optimism and pessimism have their pros and cons. Let’s have a closer look at them.


Success: Why optimists suceed AND fail more

Optimism gives you a feeling of security. Actually, 80 percent of people share an optimism bias. That does not mean that they are optimistic about everything. But still, most people significantly underestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen to them. At the same time, they are convinced they will be better off compared to others in the future. This, for example, makes people feel sure that – even if many business ideas fail – theirs will not.

There is definitely a connection between optimism and success. Researchers found many optimists among CEOs. But does that mean that optimism automatically makes you successful?

Not necessarily. Optimism is often a prerequisite for success – simply because, in many cases, success cannot be achieved without taking risks. A pessimist might not even have tried. This is also where self-fulfilling prophecies come in. When a person firmly believes that they will reach their goal, even if it is somewhat delusional, this might convince other people of their idea and expertise – and thereby help make their plans come true.

This mechanism is nice. But you cannot rely on it. Optimism cannot only lead to success, but it can also lead to great failure. Disastrous decisions in business are not seldom made due to optimism. Underestimating the risks is not always a good thing. Nor is ignoring the difficulties on the way. This is also why it can even be harmful to fantasize too much about your goal. Positive fantasies about how you made it feel nice, yes. But they do not help you create the energy to actually get started.

A more promising approach is the so-called mental contrasting. It does not only let you visualize your goal but also prepare for the obstacles on the way – thereby combining the benefits of optimism and pessimism.

Still, it seems that optimism does have some real benefits for those who strive for success. Wouldn’t it help if pessimists just faked some optimism in order to make great self-fulfilling prophecies come true? Apparently not. Researchers found that for some people pessimism is a valid strategy. Many anxious people use a so-called defensive pessimism. They set low expectations and prepare for the worst to happen. This helps them manage their anxiety and they end up well-prepared – and often successful. “Don’t worry, be happy” messages do not help defensive pessimists. And forcing those people to calm down and take it easy will even make them perform worse.


The benefits of being old and grumpy: health and happiness

So optimism is not the only way to success and can – indeed – also be a road to perdition. But what about health and happiness? Do optimists score better here?

It is clear that negative thinking in its extreme forms impairs your well-being. People who cannot stop worrying might suffer from an anxiety disorder. Depression is characterized by focusing on the negative aspects of your life and largely blending out the positive ones. These conditions are clearly neither good for health nor happiness and should be treated by a professional. The same applies to destructive negative self-talk. But to be fair: Also excessive optimism is dangerous. It is present in mania and lets people do foolish, risky things.

In this article, we are not so much interested in the clinical extremes but rather the “everyday” optimism and pessimism. Of course, here it still holds that a lot of worrying equals stress. And that ongoing stress can have a negative impact on your body. Nevertheless, there is still no definitive proof for the health-benefits of optimism. Yes, studies may have found that optimistic people tend to be healthier. But that does not necessarily mean that they are healthy because of their optimism. It is equally plausible that health leads to optimism. Or maybe there is some third factor in those people that makes them both healthy and happy.

While it is unsure if optimism really makes you healthier, it is pretty obvious why it should boost your mood. Optimists worry less. They focus on the positive. It makes sense that, in general, they are more upbeat. Also, there is evidence that optimistic people are more resilient - they are better at dealing with difficulties and backlashes. This, by the way, does not mean that resilient people are less sad about a friend’s death, for example. They experience the same amount of emotional pain as non-resilient people. But they are able to let it go more quickly. Why? On the one hand, optimists are less likely to blame themselves for failure and fate. On the other hand, they are better at finding some meaning in a negative event that helps them to carry on.

What is interesting, however, is that optimism does not necessarily make you happy and resilient for the long run. While younger people’s resilience benefits from optimism, it might take its toll over time. A study showed that among elder people pessimists actually dealt better with negative life events, such as a friend’s death. Their pessimism had prepared them for bad events. The same seems to apply for the aging process itself. Older people who foresaw a less happy future for themselves were happier after one year than the ones who pictured themselves happy. Being old and grumpy might actually be a benefit! Additionally, the older you are the more you struggle with the long-term costs of your optimism bias. If your young, optimistic self thought the risks of smoking could not affect you, you will face the consequences as you grow older. The same applies to topics such as financial investment and retirement arrangements.

Also, the effect does not always need a whole lifetime to kick in. Studies gave shown that idealized fantasies about their future may put people in a good mood – for now! Already a few months later, however, the effect had reversed. Those who had enjoyed dreams about a wonderful future showed more signs of depression. A possible explanation is that people who enjoy idealized fantasies about the future put less effort into making it actually come true. Dreaming about it already feels nice enough. At some point, however, reality and disappointment catch up with those people. And make them unhappy.


Optimism and pessimism: Who is the winner now? 

Everyone told you to be positive for ages. Are we now telling you that you should be negative instead? Of course not. You have seen that both optimism and pessimism have their advantages. And just as a leopard can’t change its spots, a pessimist can – and should – not suddenly turn into an optimist. And vice versa.

Like with many things, also with optimism and pessimism, the key is keeping the balance.

First of all, you should get a feeling for where you are on a scale between pitch-black pessimism and pink-glasses optimism. Do things usually turn out better than you had imagined? This might be a sign for pessimistic tendencies. Would other people say you often overestimate yourself? Are you convinced that even if many bad things happen, they are unlikely to happen to you? These qualities hint at an optimist. By the way, it is possible that you are optimistic about certain areas of your life but pessimistic about others. For example, it is quite common for people to be optimistic about their own fate, but pessimistic about the future of the society they live in.

Once you have figured out your optimistic and pessimistic tendencies, it is easier to put your thoughts and feelings into perspective – the negative as well as the positive ones. If you tend to see things a little too pessimistic, you might try to remind yourself from time to time that things usually work out for you. And if you are prone to over-optimism, try to force yourself to look at the risks and obstacles, once in a while.

And most of all: Do not feel bad for being negative. It’s okay.



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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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