3 Differences Between Optimists and Pessimists
The thing I love about people is that we all have different personalities, motivations, and interests. One of the classical examples of opposite personalities are the optimist and the pessimist.
We might be a more of a pessimist or an optimist depending on the situation. But what, exactly, are the differences between optimists and pessimists?
Optimists vs. Pessimists
Psychologists approach optimism and pessimism in a couple ways when it comes to research.
But one of the main theories says that our attitudes are based on our thought patterns and how we interpret events. What psychologists call “explanatory style”. They argue that we have a sunny – or shady – disposition based on how we explain to ourselves how and why things happen.
Martin Seligman, well known in the world of positive psychology, says the way a pessimist and optimist interpret an event can be boiled down to 3 basic qualities. Whether it is permanent, pervasive, and personal.
Seligman sums up the differences of pessimists and optimists nicely in Learned Optimism:
The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.
The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case.
How Pessimists and Optimists See the World
Everyone is familiar with the “glass half full” or “glass half empty” analogy. It demonstrates how an optimist and a pessimist will interpret the same situation in two different ways.
In that same vein, here’s how an optimist and pessimist would interpret both good and bad events using the 3 explanatory qualities: permanent (vs. temporary), pervasive (vs. specific), and personal (internal or external control).
1. When Something Bad Happens
- (Temporary) They see the setback, failure, or situation a only happening for a short duration or as a rare occurrence.
- (Specific) It’s an isolated situation or has a specific cause. “I didn’t prepare properly for that exam” or maybe “I didn’t practice enough for that presentation.”
- (External Control) It wasn’t their fault and it was beyond their control. The cause could be due to someone’s behavior or circumstances that were out of their hands. “I got a bad grade because the teacher hated the topic.”
- (Permanent) The situation is enduring or will last a long time. “I’ll never catch up on my work.” or “I can never get anything done when I want to.” or “Nothing ever goes the way I planned.”
- (Pervasive) There’s a universal explanation or generalization to explain what happened. “No one can be trusted” or “Teachers just don’t like me.”
- (Internal Control) It’s their fault. They could have said or done something differently or made better decisions. “I should have known better than that.”
2. When Something Good Happens
When something good happens, the views are reversed.
- (Permanent) It happened because of an inherent trait or ability. “She liked me because I’m outgoing.”
- (Pervasive) A general skill or characteristic is responsible. “I win games because I’m good with probabilities.”
- (Internal control) It was a result of their actions and decisions. They had direct control over the outcome.
- (Temporary) They were extremely lucky, or it happened because of some transient quality like mood.
- (Specific) It was due to a particular incident or a very specific skill. “I’m only good with numbers.” or “I was just in the right time at the right place.”
- (External control) It was due to someone or something else.
Benefits of Optimism
Pessimism isn’t all bad, it actually does have its advantages. As you might expect, the benefits favor the optimists. They’ve been found to have better health, longer life, are better at pursuing goals, and more resilient.
From Learned Optimism:
The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat.
Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.
Want to be more optimistic?
Then pay attention to what you tell yourself when something good or bad happens. Calm that inner critic when something doesn’t go right. And try to forgive yourself more when something doesn’t go right.