Pessimism vs Optimism


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Generally, optimism is linked to higher achievement. However, amongst those undertaking legal studies, optimism is linked to lower grades and pessimism to higher grades (ie just the opposite). Pessimists have an underlying attitude that their experiences will usually (or always) be negative and they also believe failures are their own fault. Unfortunately, pessimistic thinking is linked to depression.

That is, the more pessimistic someone is, the more likely they are to suffer from depression. Depressed people are actually much better judges of reality. For instance they are better at judging when something they are doing is useless. So the more realistic someone is, the more likely he or she is to become depressed!

Pessimism is also bad for health. Pessimism makes people more liable to die of heart disease once they have it as well as more likely to get cancer in the first place. Indeed, among a sample of lawyers optimism was the best predictor of general well-being, even better than hardiness (emotional resilience). A study of law students found that those high in optimism at time 1 had more active immune systems at time 2 and that this was partly due to their having more positive moods, perceiving less stress and not using avoidance methods of coping.

In a study of male Harvard undergraduates that started in the 1940s, high amounts of optimism at age twenty predicted good health at sixty-five. Meanwhile, those who were highly pessimistic at twenty often had left no forwarding address by the time those questionnaires rolled around at age sixty-five.

Optimism (generally) appears to have a strong beneficial effect on physical and mental health. Optimists are positive thinkers. There are several ways of "thinking positively". One is having thoughts with a positive content and attributing good and not bad events to self, which happy people tend to do. Another is having a good sense of humor, which enables people to "see the funny side of things", having an ironic view of life, which makes bad things seem good.

Most people have a positive view of the world, but some have a more positive view than others. Most people believe they have far more control and more skills than they actually do have. For instance, the majority of drivers consider themselves more skilful than the average driver. Over 95% of new college/university students believed they would graduate whereas the actual failure rate is about 25%. Most people believe they have far more control over their lives than is actually the case.

Many lawyers will immediately label this way of thinking "self-delusional". Yes indeed, but the most recent research points to the benefits of self-delusion! This self-delusion has been found to be healthy, resulting in more success, better health and longer life than those who are actually realistic! (On the other hand, yes it can lead to rash experimentation which may be one of the reasons the majority of lawyers tend towards the pessimistic point of view.)

Pessimism is connected with a belief that an event is beyond control. Perceptions of helplessness and poor coping were also associated with the inability to attribute any real meaning or purpose to the conflict or problem situations. Such a perception is associated with a high distress factor, a predisposition to depression, and a wide diversity of health risks. It is also linked to low self esteem and poor self confidence.

In a study by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the medical histories of 839 people were tracked over 30 years. They had all completed a standard personality test between 1962 and 1965, measuring their optimism. There were 124 optimists, 197 pessimists and 518 in between. Their death rates were compared and every 10-point increase in pessimism was associated with a 19 per cent increase in death rate. Similar studies have been done more recently on the role of optimism in high-risk pregnancies, speeding recovery from heart by-pass surgery, and as part of the treatment for teenagers who take drugs. In all these studies pessimists tended to do markedly worse.

Scientists have proved that we can change our brain responses by conscious effort. We can actually condition ourselves to trigger a particular chemical pattern in our brains so that we can change our attitudes and our thinking in positive ways. Thus, even if you have a habit of focusing on the negative, with practice you can change that habit.

Taking control of how you respond to your thoughts and what thoughts you focus on can make all the difference between happiness and unhappiness. An excellent first step is simply to acknowledge the negative feelings respectfully – they are not the cause of your feeling bad but rather signposts to your negative thinking. Then focus your energies on a substitute. Optimists, you see, use their imagination to rehearse success.

Indeed it has been discovered that the most successful individuals from all walks of life do this routinely. Not only do optimists imagine a rosy future, they remember their successes much better than they recall their failures. They dwell on the pleasant. They skip over, although they don’t ignore, their shortcomings.

This called "positive illusion". You see it in world-class competition of all kinds, for instance. The world champion goes into competition believing he or she will succeed. Top ice skaters, skiers, gymnasts, divers, and other performers imagine themselves completing their programs flawlessly. They are all optimists. As well as working very hard to achieve their peak form, they anticipate success. They don’t hope for it; they expect it.

The power of positive illusion occurs in the worlds of commerce, politics, and art as well. Research on the process by which people become effective and inspiring leaders uncovered one trait all great leaders possess.  This "unwarranted optimism" is the ability to see a positive future even in the face of contradictory evidence and appears to be a strong component of top leaders.

Optimists believe that any difficulties or setbacks are temporary, specific to just that experience, and not their own fault. They believe they are in control of their lives. The happiest people believe this whether or not it is true. In other words, the most effective way to increase your happiness is to ‘act as if’ you are in control. Researchers found that those who believe that they are in charge of their destiny are happier, healthier and more productive than any other group of people.

Yet their lives are not really any different from those who do not feel in control. Even for those working in the same kinds of jobs, the ones who saw it as a positive experience and felt in control of their lives had 28% more life satisfaction, according to one study. In fact, in the late 1980s researchers at UCLA found that those who score high on "mental health" actually have more illusions than others! Some of the most common illusions of the mentally healthy are:

* overly positive views of themselves

* convenient ‘forgetting’ of negative facts about themselves

* ‘unrealistic’ optimism about themselves

* ‘unrealistic’ optimism about the future in general

* ‘abnormal’ cheerfulness

It seems that the pollyannas of this world have better health and certainly have more happiness. So do you want to have those kinds of ‘illusions’ or would you rather stick to hard realism and die sooner than the deluded fools?

There’s more. Optimists are more successful in all areas of life. Recent studies show that optimists excel in school, have a better love life, make more money, and have better health as well as living longer! Optimists also do better in the face of stress. They take action sooner; break big problems into smaller, more manageable ones; stick to their goals longer; and believe others can help. All this - and they are happier too!

Surely there is a down side to optimism? Well, not really. The only likely harm of optimistic thinking is when we use over-optimism to shield ourselves from reality. Optimists tend to overestimate the likelihood of success so unrelenting optimism is not a perfect solution. Therefore it is better to be pessimistic in the planning stages but optimistic at most other times.

Remember that, even though optimists bite off more than they can chew (so that they can end up with broken dreams and unrealistic desires), they still end up healthier and happier than pessimists! So which perspective is correct? The answer is neither. You can make a case for each side.

What’s really important is not which way of thinking is correct but which is most beneficial. Having an unrealistically positive view of ourselves seems to be directly linked to greater success. So, you get to choose…..

More on the Power of Optimism