Understanding Optimism and Pessimism
Pessimism and optimism are attitudes that affect the way we view the world and what happens around us. A pessimist views success as the result of good luck or fate. Optimists see success as the result of their hard work.
A pessimist views a job loss as another’s fault. Perhaps their boss doesn’t like them. The system is against them. Or, life is simply unfair. When the pessimist loses a job, they view it as a barrier. They may believe they will never find work again. Optimists see an instance like a job loss as a short-term issue. They may realize it’s simply a lack of demand in their field. They encourage themselves to work hard to find another job. As a result, they will find one.
Dr. Martin Seligman compiled research and wrote the best-selling book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. It describes how differently optimists and pessimists view the world. He teaches us to shift our thinking to be more optimistic. Benefits of optimism are undeniable. Optimists have better health, live longer, and can adapt more easily to the most difficult circumstances. Pessimists suffer more health issues, including anxiety and depression.
Pessimists can learn to be more optimistic and to modify their attitudes. When they do, they become healthier and gain greater happiness in life.
Optimism is not the approach to take in every situation. When you are promoting success; inspire, teach, and improve morale. This is the optimistic approach. However, pessimism has a place and specific benefits. Even optimists can be pessimistic at times. Pessimists tend to view situations realistically, which some optimists may fail to do.
A Framework to view an issue (The ABC’s of optimism)
Here is a framework you can use to work through situations in optimistic and realistic ways. Use the steps outlined from A through E to help define and work through the issue. Dr. Martin Seligman originally developed this model.
“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” (Seligman, 2006: 312)
A – Adversity
Anything you see as a problem
B – Beliefs
o Our thoughts on the difficulty become our beliefs
o How do we feel about the adversity?
C – Consequence
o The actions that happen because of our beliefs
D – Debate, Distancing, or Distracting
Debate is arguing with yourself:
o What is the evidence for these beliefs?
o What are alternative ways to look at the difficulty?
o Even if your beliefs are correct, say to yourself, “what are its implications?” Deemphasize the downsides of the situation.
o How useful is holding on to negative beliefs?
Distancing means moving away from the pessimistic attitude.
o We can distance ourselves from the untrue accusations of others. We are worse at distancing from accusations we direct at ourselves. Those can be bad thought habits created by unpleasant past experiences.
o Stand back and defend yourself.
Distracting helps us break away from pessimistic thoughts.
o Use mental or physical methods to make yourself stop. Some people use a rubber band on their wrist that they snap when they have pessimistic thoughts.
o Do what you must to redirect your thoughts.
o This describes how conflicting pessimistic thoughts makes you feel.
Barbara J. Winter offered a great analogy (paraphrased): “When you come to the edge of light, and are about to step off into darkness, one of two things will happen. There will be a solid place to stand, or you will learn to fly.”
Optimism vs Pessimism
Optimists and pessimists view the same situations differently. Dr. Martin Seligman explains:
o A pessimist views situations as pervasive, permanent, and personal.
o An optimist sees them as isolated, temporary, and where effort is possible. They see that they have control.
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