Way too many people out there have this belief that optimism is synonymous with delusion and/or being unrealistic. I hear it all the time that optimists are just sunshine, rainbows, and flowers. They don’t see or acknowledge the hurt and pain that’s out there in the world. They are optimistic because their life is good. Their reality is distorted. One individual on Fox News went so far to say that optimism was at fault for why a US soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians because “soldiers are actually taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged.”
But did you ever stop to think that maybe optimists are the realists? Maybe their life is good BECAUSE they are optimistic? The truth is that optimism and positivity wins. A mild dose of pessimism has its utility, and extremism of anything is unhealthy, but by and large, optimism wins. According to the research shared in Martin Seligman’s book on optimism, on average, optimists have better physical and mental health, and they are better achievers than pessimists. It’s just a fact.
That being said, optimism is not necessarily what you’ve been fed by other people. It’s not just turning everything negative into something positive, and nor is it something you can experience by just having a positive pep talk with yourself while standing in front of a mirror. Ultimately, the way you distinguish an optimist from a pessimist is based on how an individual explains to themselves the bad things that happen to them in their life.
Optimists vs. Pessimists:
When something bad happens, an optimist WILL feel bad. Of course they will. They’re human. It’s not just that their glass is half full. They’re not delusional. However, the difference between them and the pessimist is that the optimists’ feelings of helplessness are temporary and they are more likely to contextualize the bad event. The pessimist, on the other hand, views bad events as more permanent and a general occurrence in their life that is inevitable and unavoidable.
The pessimist is very passive and helpless. The pessimist accepts the inevitable doom of his or her life, and a bad event is just a reflection of that. The pessimist feels they cannot really do anything about the situation. The optimist is also passive and helpless, but that’s very short lived. Soon the optimist realizes that:
- The bad event is not a reflection of my life; it happened because of X, Y, and Z. Maybe I can’t do anything about this situation, but I can do A, B, and C to move forward.
- Bad things happen, and they suck, but that will not stop me from growing, getting better, and achieving my goals. Just because I feel bad about this doesn’t mean I need to feel terrible about my entire life.
- I have the power to move on and not feel terrible anymore.
On average, both the optimist and the pessimist experience the same bad events. Furthermore, they feel equally as bad when bad things happen to them. However, the difference is that soon after, the pessimist enables the helplessness whereas the optimist suppresses it. The pessimist feels a lack of control while the optimist takes control. The pessimist becomes passive while the optimist becomes active. Optimists forgive themselves and the negative events in their lives whereas pessimists hold a grudge.
When it comes to how we perceive the good things that happen to ourselves in life, we see almost the exact opposite thing happen. Optimists view the good events as more permanent and a general occurrence of their life whereas pessimists view good events as more temporary and are more likely to contextualize or think it is a fluke. An optimist takes a good event, savors it, and then is motivated to replicate the good event (they feel a sense of control). A pessimist, on the other hand, sours some of the good feelings by thinking this occurrence is not sustainable and is a result of luck or chance.
Both optimism and pessimism are habits. The good news is that optimism can be learned and pessimism can be unlearned. Again, it’s not to say that all optimism is good and all pessimism is bad (that’s a conversations for another day). Also, it doesn’t mean that optimists can’t have pessimistic moments or vice versa. A bad event is a bad event and everyone is going to feel bad about it. The difference, however, as Seligman states in his book, is that “in optimists, a failure produces only brief demoralization” (p.76). It’s short-lived. Optimists rebound faster and take control of their situation. This is why they are generally healthier, happier, and higher-achievers.