Optimism vs. Pessimism Explained

Optimism vs. pessimism is a common debate. Should you be optimistic or pessimistic at any given time? Which frame of mind leads to better results? Under what circumstances?

The consequences of choosing wrong are detrimental. Staying optimistic beyond the point of reason leads to failed efforts, investments, and relationships. Being overly pessimistic can inhibit positive action and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

For these reasons, it pays to know exactly when to be optimistic vs. pessimistic. This is equally true in business and life.

Let’s review the definitions of optimism and pessimism.

What is Optimism?

Optimism: Confidence about the future; believing in a high probability of success.

When you are optimistic about something you are filled with hope. You feel and display a positive, confident attitude. Your actions tend to reflect your expectations that yes, this (thing/goal/objective) CAN be accomplished. You are in a “can-do” frame of mind.

Optimism fuels motivation, energy, and hard work. It can take you to new heights you have never reached before. However, it can also lead you astray if you aren’t careful. More on this below.

What is Pessimism?

Pessimism: Concern or worry for the future; believing in a low probability of success.

When you are pessimistic about something you are filled with doubt. You feel and display a lack of confidence. Your attitude may be perceived as negative. Your actions tend to reflect your expectations that you will encounter problems. It’s not necessarily a “no-can-do” attitude, but it can be.

Pessimism fuels attention to detail, being careful, and double checking for accuracy. You are in a “prove it” frame of mind. This can lead to great things, but can also become a hindrance if not moderated.

The Right Time for Optimism vs. Pessimism

How do you know when to apply optimism vs. pessimism to a situation?

When is it the right time to push forward with a hopeful, optimistic outlook? When should you instead be more pessimistic, challenging yourself to “prove” your cause before investing additional time, energy, or resources?

The answer is not always clear and will differ from person to person. There are steps you can take, however, to discover your personal tendencies (towards optimism or pessimism). Armed with this information, you can increase your awareness of these tendencies and make better decisions.

Click here to jump below to the “How to Measure Your Level of Optimism vs. Pessimism” or read on for general suggestions.

1. General suggestions for the “optimistic” type

If you’re usually a pretty optimistic person, congratulations! In my personal opinion, this is a much happier place to be than severe pessimism. It’s still important to know how being optimistic affects you, though.

As a generally optimistic person, you probably already recognize self-confidence to be one of your greatest strengths. Being optimistic makes your resilient, hard-working, and tough. It gives you the energy to push through hard times. It gives you the power to see the best in yourself and others.

You have also probably discovered the drawbacks of optimism. Being overly confident about future results can severely compromise your ability to make good, balanced decisions today. Whether it’s a major life decision or something small, optimism can reduce your ability to properly calculate and manage risk. Especially for big decisions (home purchase, financial investment, career change, decision to have children, etc.), this can be critical.

Being overly optimistic can also cause you to set unrealistic standards (for yourself and others). By setting the bar too high, you will find the people around you – yourself included – rarely meet your expectations. This is disappointing and frustrating for all involved. Ironically, it can also lead to pessimism.

What you must realize, then, is when to embrace your optimism vs. not.

When TO embrace optimism: When you’re feeling depressed, down, or upset about something, this is when you need your optimism the most. Life is almost never as bad as it seems, and your natural positive attitude can remind you of this. When you are working on a tough project, application, proposal, or really any challenge – this is the right time to turn your optimism up to 11 and push through to the end. Put on your “anything is possible” hat and watch it work for you.

When to NOT embrace optimism: When making major life, career, or financial decisions you should turn down your optimism a few notches. When the stakes are high, you might consider asking a friend – one who you know to be more pessimistic – what they would do in your shoes. Ask yourself some pessimistic questions on purpose, and try to anticipate how things might go wrong. Will you be able to conquer those challenges as they arise, or will they be catastrophic? Achieving clarity about the situation at hand is your best chance to make a good decision.

2. General suggestions for the “pessimistic” type

If you are a pessimistic person by nature, don’t hold your head down just yet. Without people like you, airplanes wouldn’t fly, engines wouldn’t run, and bridges would collapse. People who tend to be pessimistic are also those same people who pay closer attention to detail, who question things for a living, and who anticipate how things might go wrong – before they actually do.

Funny enough, it would hard to be optimistic about any technical project succeeding without pessimists making sure the “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” are crossed.

As a pessimistic person, you probably even pride yourself on this a bit. You might see overly optimistic people as clowns who don’t know what they’re doing, valuing more conscientious types like yourself in your closer circles. It is true, after all, that we like people who most closely resemble us, and you probably feel more comfortable living and working with “realistic” people like yourself.

You also probably know being pessimistic sucks sometimes. Your natural tendency to see problems instead of solutions can be exhausting. By constantly thinking of ways things will go wrong, you can get sucked into a downward spiral of negative thinking. This can affect you on an emotional level and those around you, too.

It helps, then, to know when to embrace your pessimistic attitude vs. ditching it for a while.

When TO embrace pessimism: When you are engaged in technical work or making major life, career, or financial decisions – this is your time to shine. Let the pessimism breathe free! Let it poke holes in strategies and plans, shedding light on ways you can ultimately strengthen and improve them. Whenever something really matters, being somewhat pessimistic is smart. Beyond ensuring good outcomes for you personally, it can lead to organizational success and prevent disasters that would harm other people.

When to NOT embrace pessimismPessimism is best left out of your personal life, because nobody will stand to be around you for long if you’re a “Negative Nancy.” The pessimistic attitude often leads to poor interpersonal communication and intrapersonal emotional intelligence (note: intrapersonal = within yourself). Like with optimism, but for different reasons, it can also lead you to place unrealistic standards on yourself or your team. Being a perfectionist has its perks, but being too harsh on yourself and others will push them away and destroy your ability to form warm, genuine, and lasting relationships with other people.

(And considering great relationships with others is fundamental to happiness in life, this is a pretty big deal.)

3. Your goal: achieve a balance between optimism and pessimism

Regardless where you lay on the spectrum, your goal is the same: to achieve a healthy balance between optimism and pessimism. It’s not a black and white matter; you do not want to “always be” one way or the other. Optimism and pessimism are called for situationally, and the trick is understanding when one is more helpful than the other.

Finally, let’s examine a few ways to accurate measure your level of optimism vs. pessimism. Getting an accurate measurement will allow you to better apply these insights.

How to Measure Your Level of Optimism vs. Pessimism

Let’s explore three ways to measure your level of optimism and pessimism.

1. Wing it.

You may have an idea whether or not you’re an optimistic or pessimistic person. This is especially true if you lean very far towards one end of the spectrum. Consider through self-reflection how you make decisions, including decisions made in the past. Were they based on a hopeful future outlook, or a bleak one?

In addition to self-reflection, it can help to bring in outside opinions. Ask a handful of family, friends, or colleagues if they view you as optimistic or pessimistic. You might be surprised what you learn from collecting their feedback.

Maybe you always thought you were pessimistic, only to discover most of your friends view you as inspiring, motivating, and optimistic. Likewise, maybe you always thought you were optimistic, only to realize your friends see you as a big-time downer! Wouldn’t this be helpful to know?

Note: “Winging it” is not the most accurate way to measure your behavioral traits. However, it may be your only option if you are unwilling to invest in #2 or #3 below. It does have the advantage of being free!

2. Visit a psychologist, counselor, or therapist.

This is the more “traditional” way to get information about your psychology. Visiting a psychologist, counselor, or therapist can be immensely valuable. The advice they can provide can be life-changing.

If you do hire a professional, ask them how being optimistic vs. pessimistic affects your decisions. Ask them how they see you, similar to how you asked your friends in #1 above, and whether or not they have any advice. Should you “tone down” the optimism a bit when making major life decisions? On the other hand, should you increase your optimism and avoid taking the negative, pessimistic view all the time?

The only downside to hiring a professional is the cost. Rates are almost never lower than $250-500/hr. This can add up quickly for those on a budget.

3. Take a professional assessment (recommended).

Professional assessments give you a clear, accurate assessment of your psychology. They are also very affordable in comparison to hiring a professional as in #2 above. Most importantly, they provide detailed insights showing you how to improve.

My business provides professional assessments. You can measure up to 100 performance factors with our assessments, which were developed by PhD psychologists over the past 35 years. They have been taken by over 30 million people around the globe, and used by more than 100,000 companies. They are accurate, reliable, and market-tested.

Yes, I am suggesting you do business with us. Our training tools and programs can help you:

  • Increase your performance and productivity,
  • Make better decisions, and
  • Advance your life and career.

You can and should take our professional assessments. They address the optimism vs. pessimism question plus so much more. There is no more reliable way to measure your strengths and weaknesses.

I’d love to tell you there is a great tool lying around somewhere for free, but there isn’t. Go ahead and do your own research. Virtually all self-help crap is pure garbage, and online “personality tests” are typically as useless as they sound. You probably know this already if you’ve wasted time and money on these things before.

By contrast, our assessments were developed by a small army of PhD’s after millions of dollars went into R&D. They have stood the test of time for more than three decades, and companies like AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, American Express, and countless others use them to help their employees reach peak performance. Even within our B2B industry there are few competitors with tools this good.

What’s more, all our assessments include detailed personal insights reports. Your custom report tells you exactly where and how to improve, with clear guidelines for personal development. This is not just one page of useless summary information, either. Typical results reports are packed with over 40 pages of information, and our equally long self-debriefing workbooks will keep you busy for weeks or months.

If you are ready to take your performance to the next level, shoot me a message here.

Additional Resources for Optimism vs. Pessimism

Here are some additional resources for further research on optimism and pessimism:

  1. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/03/17/pessimism-vs-optimism/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201108/optimism-vs-pessimism
  3. http://stress.about.com/od/optimismspirituality/a/optimismbenefit_2.htm

Next, this is the best free online assessment I could find: http://www.seemypersonality.com/

This test doesn’t go into the same depth as the assessments we use at my business. However, it’s free – and there is some good advice/useful exercises to be found there. 🙂

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