“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
As you start the New Year, do you see your life circumstances optimistically or pessimistically? What is your natural disposition? How do you really want to view yourself in the world? I think of myself as a relatively optimistic person, but as I write this, I ask myself, Do I always think positively? What about my doubts and fears? No; I am not a card-carrying optimist. Nor do I believe there are absolute pessimists. We are much more complex creatures. But our disposition can help us realize our goals and live a fulfilling life—or it can hinder us.
A movement known as Positive Psychology touts the benefits of optimism and positive thinking. Research has shown that an optimistic disposition helps us cope with stress and build resilience. Further, it affects our physical health (it helps strengthen the immune system and prevent chronic diseases). And our mental/emotional well-being (it might, for example, help us cope with bad news). It goes without saying that optimists are generally happier than pessimists. But can pessimists flip to purely optimistic thinking? And should they?
Optimism is derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. For optimists even setbacks are viewed as learning experiences. Pessimism comes from the Latin word pessimus, meaning “worst.” A pessimist has a cynical, hopeless, or fearful perspective; anticipates undesirable outcomes; and believes that life is full of hardship.
According to psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., who is considered the father of Positive Psychology, and is the author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, pessimists have three thinking styles that surface when something bad has happened or didn’t go their way. They react automatically, believing the cause is either permanent (“this change can never be undone”; pervasive (“this will spoil everything”); or personal (“this happened because I made the wrong call and I have no skills”).
The fact is that humans are wired biologically to be fearful, which triggers the fight or flight response. While this negativity bias has helped humans meet hardships across the millennia, unfortunately, it has become the way many of us experience the stress-producing challenges we face in modern life. Optimists, on the other hand, respond to stress by focusing on the potential to create something better.
But there is a paradox because we are also wired for positivity. We are more likely to remember pleasant experiences than negative ones. We even remember neutral events as more positive than they really were. Being hopeful and trusting, optimists continuously create positive memories. Sometimes, however, this high level of trust can result in extreme disappointment.
There are actually advantages to being a pessimist. A pessimist who is naturally skeptical generally needs proof before he or she gets on board. Scientists, necessarily, are constantly questioning and reluctant to accept findings that cannot be duplicated. While optimists tend to be risk takers and may make fanciful leaps in thinking, pessimists may help keep their unrealistic ideas in check. Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Both perspectives help us to see the whole.
Realism, optimism with a caveat
None of us live entirely as idealistic optimists or fatalistic pessimists. There is a middle position: realism. William Arthur Ward, an often-quoted 20th century American writer, noted: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
During the Vietnam War, many US soldiers were held captive for long periods. Once the prisoners were rescued, the ones who made it were often realists. It was discovered that usually pessimists died first. Surprisingly, they were followed by optimists, who often lost hope over time and gave up. Mostly the realists made it because they lived one day at a time, making the most out of each day.
In the book Good to Great, author James Collins recounts a conversation he had with James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy commander who was held captive in Hanoi for seven and a half years, where he was tortured, locked in leg irons, denied medical attention, and kept in solitary confinement. Stockdale told Collins, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
When asked which prisoners did not get out, he replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. . . . they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’” And so on and so forth. Ultimately, said Stockdale, “they died of a broken heart.”
Though Stockdale’s outlook sounds optimistic, he emphasized that it was not. He remained realistic about his situation; he didn’t give up because he looked at the big picture, and he had no expectations about when he would be freed, whereas the optimists held on to unrealistic hopes. This is what is known as the Stockdale Paradox.
A realist is someone who sees things in the moment and takes each day as it comes. Realists are grounded and adaptable; they are able to cope with the negative while still enjoying the positive. A realist hopes for the best and is prepared for the worst. Like pessimists, realists base opinions and decisions on analysis, though they tend to be more objective.
Realizing the best you
Positive Psychology believes people can boost their positive emotions, happiness level, optimism, and coping skills. It recommends this exercise: Visualize yourself at a future moment in time—such as six months, one year or five years from now—having accomplished your goals. Consider the character strengths you’ll need to make that vision a reality. Imagine that in this vision of your future you are expressing your Best Possible Self. You might think of it as reaching your full potential, achieving an important milestone, or realizing one of your life dreams. This vision should be attainable and within reason. Writing it down can help you grasp the character strengths that will help you realize your Best Possible Self.
I learned a similar approach in my coaching training, called “Future Self.” Meeting a vision of the Self I would like to become, I asked questions such as what important steps had she taken to achieve her goals. This exercise helped me create a positive direction for my life, with realistic steps that I am still taking to become what I consider my Most Satisfied Self.
In my own experience, meditation and mindfulness practices have fostered my own realism. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Harvard University and author of Mindfulness, has conducted research that has found that mindfulness results in better health, more competence, and greater happiness. She suggests that mindfulness makes us more optimistic because we are open and attentive to possibilities.
On the other hand, mindless optimism or pessimism may prevent people from being present with reality itself. For example, a pessimist may mindlessly relinquish control of his health to the doctor, accept whatever diagnosis is given, and take whatever medications are prescribed rather than participate in his own health care. Whereas an optimist may read about his symptoms online, question the doctor about the prognosis and what side effects the medications might have, or ask whether there are alternative treatments.
Langer’s approach to mindfulness includes five steps:
- Seek out, create, and notice new things.
- Realize how behavior can be understood differently in different contexts.
- Reframe mistakes into learning experiences.
- Expand your mindset and perspective to gain control of emotions.
- Be authentic.
Such a disposition of mindfulness encourages you to be an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. That process helps you learn what aspects of optimism, pessimism, and realism are beneficial for you and ultimately find fulfillment in life. So, what’s your natural disposition? As Oprah Winfrey once said: “When I look at the future, it’s so bright, it burns my eyes.”