by Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2001.
“…in spite of everything I still believe that people
are really good at heart.”
~ Anne Frank, 1944
Have you ever wondered why some people feel down and defeated when faced with difficult situations, while others feel challenged and hopeful? Or why some people get all worked up and angry over small inconveniences and disagreements, while others respond more positively? These different reactions are due to how people interpret events – whether they view things from an optimistic or a pessimistic viewpoint.
While we can learn from both optimists and pessimists, most of us need help being optimistic. This article explores both ways of thinking, and gives some suggestions on how to become more optimistic.
The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, undermine everything that they do, and are their fault. Optimists, confronted with the same situations, believe that defeat is a temporary setback, its causes are confined to that one situation, and it’s not their fault. While a pessimist may give up, an optimist will try harder to change the situation.
Pros and Cons To Both Optimism and Pessimism
There are pros and cons to both optimism and pessimism. Extreme optimism can be off-putting and invalidating because it seems phony and can be a denial of reality and pain. Extreme pessimism can be depressing because it seems to only focus on the negative and catastrophizes events. A healthy dose of optimism can be uplifting and hopeful, while a healthy dose of pessimism can be realistic and wise. Achieving a balance of being realistic and hopeful can be a challenge.
Differences Between Optimists and Pessimists
There are many reasons why people become pessimistic, including child trauma, losses, or highly critical parents – yet many optimists have also experienced great hardships and traumas; Anne Frank is a good example.
The difference between optimists and pessimists isn’t a difference in life experiences, but rather in how people perceive and respond to adversity. For example, an optimist who is going through a hard time assumes that life will get better, while a pessimist believes life will always be difficult and painful.
These different approaches to life impact on health. People who are optimistic generally have better health, age well, and live more free of many physical problems associated with aging. Fortunately, optimism can be learned.
Ways To Be Optimistic
The first step to optimism is to identify the thoughts and beliefs running through your mind after something unpleasant happens. How did you interpret the event? Write out all of your beliefs and read them over. Then separate your feelings from your beliefs, because you won’t be challenging your feelings; what you feel is what you feel.
Next, write down all your feelings about the event and how you responded. Do this for a few unpleasant situations, such as an argument with your partner, a work conflict, and getting a parking ticket. You might begin to see a pattern in how you interpret and react to events, and this will help you to become aware of and to change patterns.
If you do have pessimistic thoughts, it can help just to be aware that you think that way. Next time your thoughts jump to something like “I never get my way,” “Nothing ever gets any better,” or “People are always mean to me,” try to notice that a pessimistic way of thinking is present for you.
The next step is to distract yourself from your pessimistic beliefs or dispute them. Disputing pessimistic beliefs will bring deeper, longer lasting results than distracting will, but distraction can also be effective, and sometimes easier.
Disputing pessimistic beliefs involves replacing them with alternative, kinder, and more realistic explanations. For example, if you have an argument with your partner, you might immediately think: “S/he never understands me! I’m always the one who ends up apologizing. This isn’t working out; we should split up.” In the heat of an argument, it’s hard to think rationally. But if you step back and think about the situation more realistically, you might find that your thoughts become more positive, and you may even be able to work things out faster. For instance, you might tell yourself, “We just had an argument, and while s/he wasn’t very understanding, neither was I. S/he’s understood me lots of other times, and will probably understand me again once we’ve both cooled off. We’ve always been able to work through our problems before. I know we can again.”
Maintaining a hopeful, positive, yet real perspective in the face of adversity can be a real challenge – one many are facing right now in the world – but it is essential to living peacefully and happily. Just as it is important to recognize what is unjust and unfair in our lives and the world, it is equally important to see the beauty, love, generosity, and goodness as well. Being gentle and loving with ourselves when we make mistakes, or when bad things happen is key to being hopeful and optimistic. And even if you’re not sure it’s possible, you can do it!