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How to become an optimist (and how to use pessimism to your advantage)

[ 84 ] October 20, 2010 |
In answer to the "Is the glass half empty...

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Apparently, at some point in my life, I “learned” that it’s safer to expect things to turn out badly. Then you’re always either right or pleasantly surprised, right?

Well, yes, but that’s a bit limiting. The thing is, if you believe you can do something, you’re more likely to try it, more likely to stick with it, and thus more likely to actually do it. You miss out by expecting the worst, and it feels pretty crappy.

Your perceptions color your experience of life. This is true for everyone, and there’s no getting around it. Perceptions are subjective—they’re based on your interpretations of each situation you encounter. The great thing about that is it means you can change them.

Start thinking like an optimist

The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists is that optimists assume good things are permanent and pervade every area of their lives, but assume bad things are temporary and isolated to their limited context.

For example, say I try to call a friend but can’t get through and don’t get a call back. If I’m an optimist, I’ll assume that the friend will call back eventually, it’s nothing personal, and all of my other friendships are still readily available. In contrast, if I’m a pessimist, I might start freaking out that the friendship is over, in fact my whole social life is headed down the toilet, and it’s all because I’m fundamentally flawed, so nobody likes me.

It’s the flip side for positive events. Let’s say I write an article and submit it to a magazine I’d really like to see it published in, and then it gets accepted. If I’m an optimist, I will explain it as being a good writer and having a lot of success in life as a whole, whereas if I’m a pessimist, I’m more likely to say it was a fluke, or I just got lucky this time.

It seems pretty obvious that the optimistic approach will lead to more positive feelings. But is it foolish to think that way?

I say no. For most situations in life, you’ll never know the real explanation. Did that guy on the freeway cut you off because he thinks you’re a loser, because he just had a fight with his wife, or because he’s in a huge hurry to get to the restroom? Unless he actually hits you, chances are, you’ll never find out. So what would it hurt to assume his bad driving was due to his own issues, and you just happened to be nearby?

In reality, very little that happens is personal. People are pretty self-absorbed, and most of the time, they’re not thinking about you. If they do something thoughtless, it’s most likely just that: thoughtlessness. Even in the rare case that someone is trying to hurt you, it’s because they’re screwed up or suffering in some way—it’s still really not about you. If you take it personally, you’re making up an explanation that is not true and makes you unhappy. Not much point in that.

Any time you have a choice, choose to explain good situations to yourself as pervasive and long-term, and bad situations as temporary and isolated. Refuse to take bad things personally. Even if you don’t believe these explanations at first, just assume them for the sake of argument, and see how it works out. I’m betting you’ll like it enough to stick with it.

What’s great about pessimism

Now that you know the secret to optimism, let’s look at how to take advantage of the best pessimism has to offer, too. It would be tempting to assume that, since optimism makes you feel good, pessimism is bad, so we should avoid it, but that’s not completely true. Pessimists are good at foreseeing difficulties and potential bad outcomes. You can use this ability with optimistic thinking to make yourself even more likely to succeed. If you think of bad ways your project may turn out or things that could go wrong, use that information. Think ahead, prepare better, develop workarounds for possible problems and roadblocks. Then, if something starts to go wrong, you’ll be ready to head it off or fix it. When you do, feel free to explain it to yourself as optimistically as you want. I suggest something like “Yeah, I did it! That could have been a disaster, but I made it a success! I always succeed because I’m such an awesome pessimist!”

That ought to do the trick.

This post has everything you need to start being an optimist, but if you want more information, I recommend Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman–he’s the expert on learning to be an optimist.

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (84)

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  1. I personally love pessimism, or as I like to call it, being realistic. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than let down.

  2. runtobefit says:

    Very good points on both sides. I thought I would like the article when I read the title, but I prepared for the article to be really bad. However, it turned out better than expected and that made me pleasantly surprised. I had assumed if it was a bad article it was likely directed at me and my pessimistic nature. The optimistic side of me says that the article was written to simply brighten my day…have I read too much into this? Do I have split personalities? JK…Great Job! :-)

    http://www.runtobefit.wordpress.com

    • Cara says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you were pleasantly surprised, and thanks for giving me the chance to brighten your day! :)

      (I thought your comment might be bad, but then when I read it, I was pleasantly surprised… 😉

  3. Yusra says:

    I’d describe myself as the gut-feeling-ist (O_o). I always ‘know’ at the back of my mind (or gut), that somehow, x will happen or y won’t. But then again, I’m pretty sure that’s the basis of pessimism and optimism – somewhere inside, you always know which way the wind will blow, and if it blows one way one time too many, you forget to listen to your brain(?) and instead your ingrained ‘pessimist or optimist’. (That said, I’m pretty sure this makes more sense to me than to you.)

    Another positive of pessimism, if you think of all the ways disaster may strike, you’d be pleasantly surprised when at the end of it all, it’s a success (and would be uncharacteristically smiling for weeks on end. [/anecdote])

  4. What a wonderful post! I needed a reminder like this today. Thank you! :)

  5. Us optimists _never_ feel let down. When things don’t work as planned, we take it as a “temporary setback” and instead of thinking of the unpleasant things in the present, we work towards a better future.

    If things are really crappy, we know that this will be a “life changing experience” and a “good cocktail party story.”

    There’s nothing more real about being negative than there is about feeling gratitude for the good in our lives.

  6. pltprincess says:

    Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute. :)
    (Note: Not sure who gets credit for this statement as I read it in my Facebook stream one morning and it stuck in my head.)

  7. schesnutt says:

    Dear Pessimist,
    How can you think being a Pessimist is good? Nothing is good, right?
    Love,
    Optimist

  8. Sulfonix says:

    Now this post surely made my glass half full, but it did make me feel that even though it is half full it is still half empty, and that can make me drink the water conservatively 😀
    Congratulations.
    http://sulfonix.wordpress.com

  9. Lindsay says:

    I find the more I expect good to happen, the more it simply does! The same goes for when I expect bad things to come to me, they sure do show up!

    I used to be a pessimist (but identified as a realist). In the past couple of years I flipped my way of thinking and suddenly, life has become a whole lot sweeter.

  10. mffanrodders says:

    “The good thing about being a pessimist is that you’re nearly always right or pleasantly surprised.” Douglas Adams. :)

    I am definately a pessimist by nature.

    • Cara says:

      I knew I heard that somewhere–thanks for identifying the source!

      As a pessimist and a Douglas Adams fan, I’m guessing you always know where your towel is! 😉

  11. CrystalSpins says:

    I like the idea of keeping a bit of optimism and a bit of pessimism. Like how a glass is both half empty and half full at the same time.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

  12. True. But developing the other more than the other can really cause problems. For example, more optimism over pessimisim can lead to losing ones grasp over reality and more of the latter can direct man to be a loser in thought. Hence, both should be exercised in equal measure.

    I wish more people can put your article into thought. 95 points for you!

    😀

  13. Ishana says:

    Thanks for the post, it’s terrific! I’m a “gray-area thinker” in that I see things from both sides. So in that sense, I’m both an optimist and a pessimist. Whenever bad things happen, I immediately begin thinking of ways to fix it, but I still often blame myself for things that may not actually be my fault.

    Anecdote: My friend sent me a string of text messages this morning to complain about everything under the sun: my hair hates me today, dumb people and red lights, it’s cold outside, this cough isn’t making the day easier, work is so disorganized today, my arm and back hurts. Each in a separate message. Not an hour later, the same friend tells me he cut himself bad whilst opening a box at work. The power of negativity, or simply a bad day?

    Thanks again for the food for thought, and congrats on FP!
    ~IshanaTM

    • Matthew says:

      The power of negativity, or simply a bad day? Have to say, what a great quote. I have never looked at a day with this much simplicity as you have just described. Keep up the good work.

    • Cara says:

      Thanks for reading!

      As for the power of negative thinking, good point! Whether it causes more bad stuff to happen or not, it certainly causes us to notice the bad more, which is no fun. Even if it doesn’t change external reality, I’d rather skip it.

  14. Catherine says:

    Is the glass half empty or half full?
    My response: I don’t know about how empty or full it is, but that glass is dirty! You need a new dishwasher.

    I’m a pessimist bordering on cynicism… :)

    Loved this post, I definitely need to try harder to be more optimistic.
    http://simplysolo.wordpress.com

    • Cara says:

      Eh, I think it’s just one isolated dirty glass and they usually get clean just fine. 😉

      Glad you enjoyed the post; I hope you find it useful.

  15. dcwright02 says:

    great post and so very true. i like the part about people being mostly self absorbed! :)

    congrats on being freshly pressed!

  16. ed says:

    a true engineer says the container just has more than the required amount of glass…glad i’m not one of those!

  17. ed says:

    also…is there such a thing as being both? we could call it being an “optipest”, or a “pissamess” or something. Well, maybe that wouldn’t work…

    • unfa says:

      “Piss-a-mess” sounds good :) “Opti-pest” even better 😉

      I’am an optimist and it feels great :) Even if something bad happens to me I think to myself that it is good for me to suffer a bit so later I can get something very good and valuable.

      Generally when I rediscovered the God and the Bible, and noticed that He’s not such a freak as most Catholics I met, I realized that my life has some point, and if I give my life to Jesus, he will lead me, and then I can’t feel bad of anything at all :) And I think it really works, I’am not feeling down anymore :)

    • Cara says:

      Too funny, Ed! You crack me up!

  18. Good post! Someone just recently wrote a book about this and said that pessimists are no worse off in life than optimists. The only difference is that in the nursing home, when a pessimist dies, people are more relieved. I think a good balance works best.

    • Cara says:

      Oh, boy, there’s one to think about! But then it comes back to how to measure “no worse off in life”–I’d say if people are relieve when I die, I’ve definitely been doing something wrong. Sorry, I realize it’s a joke, and I do see the humor, it just struck me seriously.

  19. valentinedee says:

    Great post. I’m a studier of the mind and have proven to myself, many times over, that positive thoughts definitely lead to positive actions; and vice-versa.
    I used to believe that if I thought negatively about a situation then I wouldn’t be disappointed when something bad happened. Thank heavens I learned the truth.

    And thank you, for posting this.

    Valentine deFrancis

  20. Samantha says:

    Really enjoyed what you had to say. As well as trying to get some writing out there, I’m also trying to find a better outlook on life. I’ll definitely remember this when I’m having an off day!

  21. ashish sharma says:

    There is something common in a pessimist and an optimist and that is MIST.

    Mist is a phenomenon of small droplets suspended in air… same way pessimism and optimism is like a thought suspended SOMEWHERE in the mind.

    but I sense , we need both so that we know the difference …

    optimism is like mist and pessimism is like fog… because the only difference between mist and fog is visibility…

    Mist give a little clear view of the things than fog….

    As for me at the moment life is little foggy and so am i… but i believe sun will rise for me too tomorrow…

  22. questionless says:

    There is something common in a pessimist and an optimist and that is MIST.

    Mist is a phenomenon of small droplets suspended in air… same way pessimism and optimism is like a thought suspended SOMEWHERE in the mind.

    but I sense , we need both so that we know the difference …

    optimism is like mist and pessimism is like fog… because the only difference between mist and fog is visibility…

    Mist give a little clear view of the things than fog….

    As for me at the moment life is little foggy and so am i… but i believe sun will rise for me too tomorrow…

  23. Matthew says:

    Existencemodulus, the reply you made, personally speaking you should have been a philosopher. Your answer that you should be both in my opinion is exactly right. If you had too much optimism, i feel that you would be living in a different world to my perception which is entirely imperfect. Thus, on the other hand if you did not have enough optimism, you would scale to the brink of depression where nothing in life would make a person tick and that would be a cause for concern. Great blog and hope to be reading many more like this in the near future.

  24. Encouraging Post. Thanks. 😛

    Also, how do you get the “Share This” tabs at the bottom of the post? I’d like to have those for my page.

    • Cara says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      To get the “share this” tabs, in the Dashboard, go to Settings > Sharing. In there, you can activate the tab thing, specify the services you want to use, and determine where they show up.

  25. hoope says:

    I really loved this post…
    Life is always good if we believe in it .. For Happiness lies for those who believe in it .. :)

  26. nigeil says:

    Great ideas in here I like it a lot. I’ll probably mention it on my next post (which is all about trying to expose happy things)

  27. Lain says:

    “In reality, very little that happens is personal. People are pretty self-absorbed, and most of the time, they’re not thinking about you. If they do something thoughtless, it’s most likely just that: thoughtlessness.” That’s pretty true. That’s why I try not to take things personally. For one thing, it’s a waste of time. I bet people cut off other people on the freeway because they really do have to go potty.

  28. Great post. Yeah I try to be optimistic about most things in my life but it’s almost easier to be optimistic about other peoples lives. If a friend tells me something that’s bugging them I can immediately say positive things so that they feel better about the situation, but at the same time I can never take my own advice. We really are our own worst enemy. Sepi.

    http://journalbysepi.wordpress.com

    • questionless says:

      Sepi,
      All good advices are always for somebody else, they are rarely of any use to the one who gives it. This is not your personal problem, this is a universal phenomenon.

      The only difference is that optimists becomes consultants and give advices on same businesses they could never run on their own while a pessimist change the business .

      Seriousness apart, it is always safe to be optimistic doing experiment on someone else with your advice.

  29. Rea says:

    I’m an eternal optimist. And I can very well relate to this post.

    Nice one.

  30. Optimists tend to do better in life, in work, in relationships and in everything, mainly because when people believe that they are likely to succeed, they set goals, they try harder, they persist even in the face of setbacks and they don’t give up.

    Depressed people actually have a more realistic view of their own abilities and likelihood of succeeding, but it doesn’t help them in life, as they are more likely to give up at the first hurdle or never even try at all. So they don’t try new things, they don’t learn new skills and their horizons stay the same.

  31. Love this blog. Please check out our school project. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QY1T0gnTjxI

  32. everythingneat says:

    Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed!
    What we think about affects how we feel and then how we act.
    Balancing optimism with a dose of realism helps me face life’s challenges.
    Great post!

  33. […] also read a blog about “How to become an optimist” on 17000 Days.  Cara points out that optimists aren’t fearful, because they view set-backs as […]

  34. joanierobi says:

    As Wayne Dyer says – “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Great post!
    http://www.thepeoplestuff.com

  35. bluebee says:

    Great post. Finding the balance is the key. Malignant optimism is a term I’ve heard to describe that unwavering sense of hope that can get you into trouble and I see evidence of this on occasion, but as a natural pessimist, I’ve also learnt from others who are eternally optimistic that making a concerted effort to anticipate good outcomes can improve your resilience, help you to cope and essentially transform your life. Let’s face it: everybody has their own problems and prefers the company of those who lighten their day!

  36. I enjoyed how you spun the pessimism around. I never really think of it like that – like that by thinking about all the stuff that might go wrong, you can actually prepare against it. Great post!

  37. Refreshing post !! You have elaborated both the sides.

  38. […] 17000 Days The quest for a satisfying life Skip to content HomeAboutHow many days?Inspiration ← How to become an optimist (and how to use pessimism to your advantage) […]

  39. Sophie says:

    I love this post! It’s a refreshing reminder that we need to be proactive about keeping our negative thoughts in check. Have you ever read anything about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? It’s about this same concept – recognizing your negative thoughts, and replacing them with helpful ones. Thanks for such a well-rounded perspective on this.

    ~Sophie
    http://habitualme.wordpress.com

  40. Sun says:

    I always expect the worst…
    When the good happens or a situation comes up where I can use my experience to change lifes negativity into positivity, I focus all my energy into that realm. I have that gift you mentioned to forsee (sp) things. That’s my strength, as well as taking all the opposite energy of my down time and using it when it is essential to keep other people fromgoing to that place while completly leaving my negativity out of it. Life is all three energies, at least in my core, which are positive negative and neutral. Use the neutral allow positivity to flow and allow negativity to be reversed and all will continue to become better and better. I LOVE THIS POST!!!

  41. barrycyrus says:

    love ette! im an optimist myself:)

  42. maryawrites says:

    Hi, some people actually equate pessimism with realism. That’s highly unrealistic in my book. However, its also important to be optimistic with common sense otherwise thats just being delusional.
    Nice one. :)

    I too have recently started my blog.
    http://maryawrites.wordpress.com/

    Going through some really tough times for a number of years, I still remained optimistic that one day I will have an easier life. And that time has come. Hurray for optimism, that’s how I live my life, always. Cheers.

  43. Guy says:

    Cara, I like your post but it’s difficult to change negative
    thinking when it has become
    habitual and ingrained in you.
    I have it so bad that I have
    been listening to hypnosis mp3’s to work on being positive.
    It’s uncomfortable for me to
    positive and feels awkward.
    I enjoyed reading the feedback
    from your post. Thank you.

    • Cara Stein says:

      I definitely understand where you’re coming from! As you practice looking for tiny glimmers of the positive, it starts to feel more natural and eventually becomes a habit. Keep at it! :)

  44. Wow that wass odd. I just wrote an very long
    comment but after I clicked submit my commesnt didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m nott riting all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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