By Adam Khan

It's an age-old battle. Pessimists think optimists are foolish; optimists think pessimists make themselves unnecessarily miserable. A lot of research has been done on this issue in the last 30 years. Have we answered the question yet? Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic people are happier than pessimists. When something bad happens, optimists think of it as temporary, limited in its effect, and not entirely their fault. Pessimists do the opposite. They consider the setback to be permanent, far-reaching and all their fault.

There are varying degrees of this, of course; it’s not black or white. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes. The main difference between optimists and pessimists is how they explain setbacks to themselves. Using these definitions, researchers find that optimism contributes to good health and pessimism contributes to illness.

In several large-scale, long-term, carefully controlled experiments, Seligman discovered that optimists are more successful than pessimists - optimistic politicians win more elections, optimistic students get better grades, optimistic athletes win more contests, optimistic salespeople make more money.

Why would this be so?

Because optimism and pessimism both tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think a setback is permanent, why would you try to change it? Pessimistic explanations tend to make you feel defeated - making you less likely to take constructive action. Optimistic explanations, on the other hand, make you more likely to act. If you think the setback is only temporary, you’re apt to try to do something about it, and because you take action, you make it temporary.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pessimistic people do have one advantage: They see reality more accurately. It’s the attitude to adopt if you’re attempting something risky or dangerous. But be careful because one of the biggest counts against pessimism is that it causes depression. More accurately, pessimism sets up the condition for depression to occur. One bad setback can knock a pessimist into the pit. Since depression costs this country more per year than heart disease (the nation’s number one killer), pessimism has serious side effects. It’s kind of a booby-prize for a pessimist to be able to say, “Yes, but I see reality more accurately.”

The good news is that a pessimist can learn to be an optimist.

Pessimists can learn to see the temporary aspects of setbacks. They can be more specific about the effects of it, they can learn to not take all the blame and they can learn to take credit for the good they do. All it takes is practice. Optimism is simply a way of thinking about good and bad; it’s a cognitive skill anyone can learn. So, what about the age-old conflict? Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

Our best answer is that the glass is both half-full and half-empty, but you’re much better off if you think of it as half-full. When bad happens: Assume it won’t last long, look to see what isn’t affected, and don’t indulge in self-blame. When good happens: Consider its effects permanent, see how much of your life is affected, and look to see how much you can take credit for.

optimism is healthy

Chris Peterson was teaching a class in abnormal psychology at Virginia Tech when he told his students to fill out an Attributional Style Questionnaire - a carefully designed test that determines a person’s level of optimism and pessimism. The students also answered questions about their general health, including how often they went to a doctor.

Peterson followed the health of his students the following year and discovered that the pessimists had twice as many infectious diseases and made twice as many trips to the doctor as the optimists. Later, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and two of his colleagues, using interviews and blood tests, found that optimists have better immune activity than pessimists.

Studies by other researchers show the same thing. Why? One big factor is that “[p]essimistic individuals,” as Seligman writes, “get depressed more easily and more often.” When a person is depressed, certain brain hormones become depleted, creating a chain of biochemical events that end up slowing down the activity of the immune system. For example, two key players in our immune systems are T cells and NK cells.

- T CELLS recognize invaders (like viruses) and make more copies of themselves to kill off the invaders. Pessimists’ T cells don’t multiply as quickly as optimists’, allowing invaders to get the upper hand; and
- NK CELLS circulate in the blood and kill whatever they come across that they identify as foreign (such as cancer cells). Pessimists’ NK cells can identify foreign entities, but they don’t destroy them as well as the optimists’ NK cells.

Optimists also look at information in more depth to find out what they can do about the risk factors. In a study by Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, at the University of Maryland, subjects read health-related information on cancer and other topics. She discovered that optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered more of it.

“These are people,” says Aspinwall, “who aren’t sitting around wishing things were different. They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal.”

In other words, instead of having their heads in the clouds, optimistic people look. They do more than look, they seek. They aren’t afraid to look into the situation because they’re optimistic. Thus, for yet another reason, optimists are likely to be healthier. The best news is what research has shown repeatedly: Anyone can become more optimistic with effort. And every effort you make to keep an optimistic attitude will reward you with a stronger immune system. So you’ll enjoy better health.

And it is also true that the better your health, the easier it is to maintain an optimistic outlook. Become more optimistic.

conversation on optimism

In the last thirty years, research into our thinking patterns and their affect on our moods and behavior has brought us to an understanding far beyond the positive thinking pioneers of the earlier part of this century. There’s an age-old battle between pessimists and optimists. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

Pessimists say it’s half-empty and only a starry-eyed dreamer would think otherwise. Optimists say it’s half-full and you only make yourself miserable to think otherwise. After the last thirty years of research into this issue, cognitive scientists have gathered enough data to say who is right. Or rather, which general mode is more practical. A pessimist and an optimist can argue with more fact and less opinion these days. Here’s how a conversation might go ...

Sherry and Nick walked along the road. It was autumn. Small gusts of wind were knocking leaves off the trees ahead of them.

“I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my whole life,” said Sherry, “This new business is the opportunity I’ve been looking for!”

“You shouldn’t be too optimistic,” said Nick. He looked serious.

Sherry seemed startled out of her reverie. “Why not?”

“Because you’re just setting yourself up for failure and disappointment.” He said it as if it was the most obvious thing there was. “If you get all pumped-up and things don’t work out, you might deeply disappointed, maybe even depressed.”

“How could I get depressed?” She’s surprised. “If I hit a setback, I’ll change my approach and keep trying. There’s no such thing as failure. Only temporary setbacks. The only way I could fail is to give up, and I’m not going to give up.”

“But what if you never succeeded? What if you kept living on hope your whole life and ended up a failure? What good is optimism then?”

“Well, what’s the alternative, Nick? Think about it. What’s better than optimism? Being unhappy? Never really trying anything challenging because you’re afraid of disappointment? The alternative to optimism is pessimism and pessimism is the road to depression.”

“Maybe you don’t have to be on either extreme, Sherry. Did you ever think of that? Or do you think optimism is better than the middle-ground?”

“I know it is. Optimistic people are happier, healthier, and more successful.”

“Who says?”

“Lots of studies have been done on this. And that’s what they found out. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you think you have a chance, you’ll keep trying. And if you keep trying, of course, you keep increasing your chances. But if you don’t think you have a chance in hell, you won’t even start, so of course, you can’t possibly succeed. If you hit a setback and think it’s a small, temporary thing, you’ll try to fix it or get past it. If you think it’s huge and permanent, you might just give up right there.”

Nick has been a pessimist all his life, but he never thought of himself as a pessimist. He considered himself a “realist.” This conversation is getting to him. He doesn’t know why, but it feels like a cherished religious faith is being attacked. “But,” he pleads, “if you’re too optimistic, you won’t see the bad news coming your way. Pessimistic people actually see reality more accurately. There are some studies that prove that, too!”

“You're right. Pessimists see reality more accurately, are more miserable, not as healthy and don’t make as much money. Even if I never dropped into a pessimistic mood - and I do once in awhile - but even if I never thought about what could go wrong, optimism would still be the best way to go through life.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because what difference does it make if you avoid more bad stuff in life if, at the same time, you end up avoiding most of the good stuff too? And you have to admit, if you aren’t happy, healthy or successful, you’ve missed most of the good stuff in life. It’s kind of a second-rate booby-prize to say, Yes, but I see things more accurately.”

They walked on in silence for a long time. A leaf floated gently down and landed on Nick’s shoulder, balanced there for a second, and fell behind him. He never noticed. Finally he said, “Maybe you have a point. But I don’t think I could become optimistic. I’ve been pessimistic my whole life. I don’t think I could change.”

“That’s kind of pessimistic of you, isn’t it?” says Sherry, laughing.

Nick gets the irony of it and smiles. “I guess that could become one of those self-fulfilling prophecies,” he says.

“Sounds like it to me,” says Sherry, putting her arm over his shoulder.

“Maybe I should just give it a try anyway.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Hey, you know what? I feel a little better already!”

They walk off into the sunset. Music rises to inspirational tones.

The End.

optimism works

It’s a practical, hardheaded, and realistic approach to life. It works better than pessimism. Thinking there’s no hope doesn’t work at all.

© 1999 Healthyplace Inc

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