What Is the Difference between an Optimist and a Pessimist?

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Optimists and pessimists, we’ve all met both.

An optimist is naive, overly enthusiastic, and has the head in the clouds.

A pessimist is a true cynic, grumpy as hell, and expects the worst about everyone and everything.

But there is more to optimism and pessimism than meets the eye.

Seligman’s classic Learned Optimism reveals the differences between optimists and pessimists, and the results are profound.

How people explain the bad things that happen to them contributes to the quality of their life.

You can live a much happier life if you know how to be optimistic, but it’s also good to know when it pays off to be a pessimist.

We need both the aeroplane and the parachute, after all.

1. How do you explain bad events to yourself?

Imagine an old drunk screamed at you from across the street.

“You lousy, piece of garbage! You really suck at what you do!”

What’s your response? My guess is you’d tell him off or find other ways to disregard the drunken statements.

The same is not true when we talk to ourselves. For some reason, we believe that everything we say is undeniably true. This is a bad mistake.

How we explain bad events to ourselves, what Seligman calls our explanatory style, is what seperates the pessmist from the optimist. More specifically, the explanatory style has three dimensions:

  • Permanance
  • Pervasiveness
  • Personalisation

Let’s look at each one to find out the difference between an optimist and a pessimist.

Permanance: the time dimension.

A pessimist thinks about bad things in terms of always’s and never’s.

“You always nag”, and “diets never work” are examples of permanent explainations.

An optimist thinks about bad things in terms of sometimes’s and lately’s.

“You nag when I don’t clean my desk” and “diets don’t work when you eat out” are examples of temporary explanations.

Permanance is the most important dimension, because permananent explanations are more likely to result in helplessness.

If your boss will always nag at you (no matter what), there is nothing you can do to change the situation. If diets never work for you, then what’s the point in trying?

You give up before you’ve even begun. There is no point in trying, so you remain passive and reactive, rather than proactive and responsible.

This thought pattern has huge ramifications for your actions (or rather lack thereof) and for the quality of your life.

If permanance is about time, then pervasiveness is about space.

Pervasiveness: the space dimension.    

A pessimist makes universal explanations for their failures.

An optimist makes specific explanations for their failures.

Let’s look at an example.

James and Hannah both got fired from a law firm. They were hit hard by the news, but Hannah managed to hold her life together. She kept going to the gym three times a week, and spent quality time with her spouse and friends.

James, on the other hand, fell apart. He ignored his wife and baby daughter. He stopped jogging and refused to meet anyone.

What was the difference?

James’s failure spilled over into other areas. He thought his failure at work also meant he failed at everything else. Hannah thought she wasn’t good at law, but that didn’t affect other parts of her life. This is the pervasiveness dimension in action.

James also blamed himself for what had happened; Hannah blamed the bad economy.

This brings us to the final dimension of a person’s explanatory style: personalisation.

Personalisation: The internal versus the external

A pessimist blames himself (internal).   

An optimist blames other people or circumstances (external). 

Pessimists tend to suffer from lower self-esteem because they internalise their failures and shortcomings. Everything is their fault.

The good news is that this dimension is pretty easy to fix, as most 5-year-old children will tell you (“he did it, not me!”). As Seligman points out in his book:

It [the personalisation dimension] controls only how you feel about yourself, but pervasiveness and permanence—the more important dimensions—control what you do: how long you are helpless and across how many situations. p. 50

We can quite easily learn to talk about our troubles in an external way, if we get encouraged to do so. The other two dimensions, as Seligman noted above, are more important and difficult to change.

People who make permanent and universal explanations for bad events have a tendency to collapse under pressure. They tend to fall into depression more easily and could therefore gain the most from disputing their own thoughts and beliefs.

He wrote Learned Optimism to help people change those dimensions. I discuss some of his most important techniques below.

2. How can you learn to be more optimistic?

Learn to argue with yourself! There are four important ways to make this work for you. Whenever you face an adversity, which kicks in a belief that has dire consequences, you can dispute them.

The first step is to record your ABCs:

Adversity: What challenge or bad event are you facing?

Belief: What are your beliefs about the bad event? How are you explaining it to yourself? Are you using permanent/temporary, universal/specific or internal/external explanations?

Consequences: What happens as a result of your beliefs?

When you do this exercise, you’ll see a link between your beliefs and consequences. Pessimistic explanations set off passivity and helplessness, whereas optimistic explanations make you feel more hopeful and energetic.

Once you’ve recorded your ABCs, you are ready to start your disputation. This strategy is at the core of learned optimism. Look for:

  • Evidence?
  • Alternatives?
  • Implications?
  • Usefulness?

Examine the evidence

This is the most convincing way to dispute a negative belief. Like a detective, ask yourself: “What is the evidence for this belief?”

What you’ll often find is that you’re making it a lot worse than what it is.

For example, I am sometimes faced with a common belief that “I’m not a number’s person”. This belief has a strong hold on me, which became clear in my statistics class. But the fact I took that class and passed it is now evidence I can use to counter my negative belief. I always feel more hopeful and energised after I’ve looked at it.

It’s a good idea to keep a place for all your personal victories, no matter how small. These personal triumphs are powerful pieces of evidence that you can return to whenever you need to.

What evidence can you find that will help you battle your worst beliefs? Jot them down somewhere, and use it as ammunition to move forward.

Look for alternatives

Most events have many causes, but we often choose to see the worst one.

Let’s say you did poorly on a test. What are you telling yourself? That you’re less intelligent? That math is not your subject?

Look around you: there are many other options to choose from!

Begin by asking yourself: “Is there any less destructive way to look at this?” In the case with a poor test score, Seligman says we’re better off focusing on:

  • The changeable (e.g. not enough time spent studying),
  • The specific (e.g. this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard)
  • The nonpersonal causes (e.g. the professor graded unfairly)

Make the effort to generate a few different alternatives. When you focus on the things you can change until next time, you are giving yourself better chances to succeed.

(Bonus: you’ll also feel better about it.)

What are the actual implications?

Sometimes, the negative belief you hold about yourself is correct. Then you’ll want to use a technique called decatastrophising.

Early on in my academic career, I was worried about my “poor” grades from my first year (I got a few Cs). I was convinced it would stop me from ever getting hired, or go to graduate school.

Looking back, I can smile at this ridiculous thought. Not only did I get a job, I also went to graduate school. Oftentimes, the implications aren’t as catastrophic as our minds make them out to be.

Is this belief useful?

Make it into a habit to question the usefulness of your beliefs. If the belief doesn’t help you at the moment, why hold on to it?

Learn to let go of your destructive beliefs; they aren’t doing you any good. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

Telling yourself that you’re not “a number’s person” isn’t very helpful, especially when you’re taking a statistics class.

Being hard on yourself when you’re on a diet isn’t exactly a recipe for success. And so on.

Aim for useful beliefs that help you tackle your challenges. Re-scripting those beliefs takes time and energy. But it’s well worth the investment.

3. Guidelines for using learned optimism

So, should we always strive to be optimistic? Absolutely not! Both optimism and pessimism play an important role. Seligman gives us the following guidelines.

Use learned optimism when:

  • You are in an achievement situation.
  • You are concerned about how you will feel (fighting off depression, keeping up your morale, etc.)
  • Your physical health is an issue.
  • You want to lead and inspire others, or if you want other people to vote for you.

Do not use learned optimism when:

  • You plan for a risky and uncertain future.
  • You consuel others whose future is dim.
  • You want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others.

One key question to ask yourself is: what is the cost of failure in this particular situation? 

If the cost of failure is high, then optimism is the wrong strategy. I certainly wouldn’t want my pilot to be overly optimistic! 

If, on the other hand, the cost of failure is low, then by all means, apply a more optimistic approach. For example, when I worked as a cold caller (please forgive me, I was in college), my optimistic approach worked far better than the pessimistic explanations some of my colleagues used.

Over to you

Optimists and pessimists are often depicted as polar opposites. Either you’re an optimist or you’re a pessimist. Binary opposites are not very useful, and frankly, we need a bit of both in our lives.

Strive for flexible optimism. And don’t be afraid to choose pessimism if the situation calls for it.

What are your thoughts on optimists and pessimists? Have you used learned optimism in your own life? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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3 responses to “What Is the Difference between an Optimist and a Pessimist?”

  1. Virginia Reeves Avatar

    Beliefs and Consequences are handled well with those 4 questions:
    Evidence?
    Alternatives?
    Implications?
    Usefulness?

    Thanks for these good reminders Olle. We do tend to be harsher on ourselves than need be. I try to remember to treat myself as I would a best friend. I would not put them down and I would try to be an encourager rather than discourager. I also try for realistic and aware rather than the polars of optimistic and pessimistic in some situations.

    1. Olle Lindholm Avatar

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Virginia!

      I love the reminder to treat yourself as you would your best friend. That’s a really great mental technique a lot of people find helpful. Thanks for sharing!

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