How to be Optimistic and Keep Pessimism in Its Place

Knowing how to be optimistic and keep pessimism in its place is an essential life skill for facing difficulties while still remaining hopeful and positive.Have you ever wondered why some people feel down and defeated when faced with difficult situations while others feel challenged and hopeful when faced with the very same situations? People develop optimistic or pessimistic outlooks by how they perceive and respond to their own challenges and successes.

Optimism is the feeling that, despite frustrations and setbacks, in the end things will turn out for the best. Optimists focus on expecting the best, when faced with uncertainty they see setbacks as temporary and remember their successes better than their failures.

Do you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist?

  1. When you think about the past, do you focus on success more than failures?
  2. Do you usually attribute positive outcomes to yourself or to good luck?
  3. Do you look for the unseen benefit in difficult situations?
  4. Do you find it difficult or easy to count on good things happening in your life?

By considering your answers to these questions, you can make your own assessment of your level of healthy optimism.

Dr. Martin Seligman in his book, Learned Optimism, explained the underlying difference between optimists and pessimists. He observed that pessimists tend to believe that bad events will last a long time (permanent), undermine everything that they do (pervasive), and are their fault (personal). On the other hand, optimists when confronted with difficult situations perceive that defeat will not last (temporary), is confined to that one situation (specific) and not necessarily their fault (shared responsibility). Do you see how a different style of explaining the same event makes optimists more resilient when facing adversity than pessimists?

So what exactly is “healthy optimism”? A healthy optimist understands that both optimism and pessimism are useful perspectives, having more of one does not mean you negate the other. On many occasions in life we need both, and finding a balance that works well for you is helpful.

Pessimism has its place. For example, mentally bracing for imagined worst-case scenarios can be useful in predicting challenges and problems and taking preventative actions. Planning for and expecting challenges can develop courage, resilience, and confidence while increasing persistence and creative problem solving in difficult circumstances.

According to Dr. Seligman, the fundamental guidelines for understanding when to use optimism is to ask yourself, “What is the cost of failure in a particular situation?” If something is risky and the cost of failure high, then looking carefully, objectively and pessimistically at the risk involved will help you take action to minimize the risks. Consequently, optimism should not be utilized in design and safety engineering, cost estimating, etc. For example, we want aircraft and automobile engineers to have a pessimistic outlook while engaged in their professional responsibilities.

However if the cost of failure is low, such as sales, overcoming shyness or engaging in new activities, then it can be advantageous to be optimistic. If you find yourself giving up before you even try, then increasing your level of optimistic thinking will be helpful.

Your optimism challenge:

Take some time to think about your answers to the four questions in this article. If you do find that you tend to be pessimistic is there an area in your life where this is unnecessarily holding you back?

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