Positively Pessimistic

December 12, 2019

by Neil Francis

I am sure that most people, at some point, have been asked whether they see their life as the proverbial glass that is either half-empty or half-full. The answer to this question will tell you a lot about your own personality. If you see the glass as half-empty, you’re generally considered a pessimist. Viewing the glass as half-full, then, makes you an optimist.

Pessimists have a generalized sense of doubt and hesitant, characterized by the anticipation of negative outcomes. They expect the worst and overestimate the risks, assuming that things will go wrong. On the other hand, optimists approach problems from a position of empowerment. Some see overcoming adversity as a challenge, one that they will gladly attempt to conquer. Optimistic people view failure as being temporary and attribute it to the situation or as a matter of circumstance.

There is now growing evidence showing the benefits, both physical and psychological, of being an optimist rather than a pessimist.

  • Optimists experience less distress than pessimists when dealing with difficulties in their lives. For example, they suffer much less anxiety and depression.
  • Optimists tend to deal with problems, rather than just avoiding them, by using acceptance, humour and positive reframing (putting situation in the best possible light).
  • Optimists don’t tend to use denial. By not sticking their heads in the sand they face up to difficult situations and challenges, while pessimists often attempt to distance themselves from the problem.
  • Optimists don’t give up easily even when faced with serious adversity, whereas pessimists are more likely to anticipate disaster and give up as a result.
  • Optimists have a higher level of life satisfaction and increased wellbeing. They are more likely to look after themselves physically and mentally.

It is crucial that an optimist has a sense of realism. Therefore, while their attitude leads them to take risks, they need to act in a way that increases the chance of a positive outcome.

Thinking Positively about Pessimism

For many years it was thought that optimism and pessimism were hardwired into behaviour and that people had to deal with how they were because there was no way to change it. However, contemporary science says otherwise. The person leading research into what he calls ‘learned optimism’ is Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

Seligman argues that anyone can make use of learned optimism, regardless of how pessimistic their outlook. To do this Seligman developed a test in conjunction with Stanford University to identify an individual’s base level of optimism.

The next step is to assess reactions to negative situations. Seligman’s approach is the ‘ABCDE’ model of learned optimism, which stands for Adversity, Belief, Consequence, Disputation and Energization. Using Seligman’s model could help you to be more optimistic in many situations:

Think about a recent problem or difficult challenge you have faced.

Make a note of your thoughts and feelings when thinking about the problem. It is very important to be as honest as you can and not ‘edit’ your feelings.

Thoughtfully consider the consequences and behaviours that emerged from the thoughts you have noted. Analyse whether these thoughts resulted in positive actions that helped you overcome the problem, or whether they kept you from doing that.

Dispute and challenge your beliefs. Think about the thoughts you noted and look for examples from your life that prove those beliefs wrong.

Consider how you feel now that you have challenged and disputed your beliefs. Do you feel more energized and motivated? Do you feel that the problem you originally thought was unsolvable is actually solvable? Has it made you more optimistic about challenging your beliefs and changed your thoughts about the original problem?

By using Seligman’s approach, people who are more optimistic at the outset can further improve their emotional health, and those who are initially more pessimistic can benefit by lowering their chances of experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Evidence from Seligman’s research, and from other psychologists who have studied optimism and pessimism, demonstrates that this simple but very effective technique can encourage optimism. Still, although it might sound easy on paper, that doesn’t mean you’re going to learn how to be an optimist overnight.

However, some psychologists argue that leaned optimism training programmes, like Seligman’s are less about teaching people to become more optimistic and more about reducing pessimism. In addition, psychologists have suggested that optimism could have a negative side as it might encourage people to take health risks and engage in risky activities because they underestimate their own level of danger. And there is some merit in those claims.

Saying all of that, though, most studies support the idea that there is a positive connection between optimism and overall good health. However, learning and practicing optimism is about more than just improving your wellbeing of helping you cope with stress, low self-esteem or anxiety. Seligman suggests it can help you find your purpose and is invaluable for discovering a meaningful life. And that is why optimism plays an important part in positive thinking. If you have a pessimistic outlook on life, then optimism can be learned and put into practice.


Neil Francis is an author and entrepreneur. He has extensive experience as a chairman, CEO, and director of many companies. Currently, he is the chairman of a digital agency and director of an internet company, consultancy, and a social enterprise. He is the author of The Entrepreneur’s Book and Changing Course.