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Positive Thinking

Optimist Vs. Pessimist: How Your Mindset Can Impact Your Life

Written by Laura K. Connell
Laura K. Connell is a personal growth and development author and trauma-informed coach.
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Optimist vs pessimist: Which one is better? The answer may not be as clear-cut as you believe. While research shows that optimists are happier, have better health, and do better at school and sports[1], there are advantages to pessimism that may surprise you.

For example, pessimists tend to be more accurate in their assessments than optimists. That’s why you often hear them refer to themselves as realists.[2]

Optimists, on the other hand, may overestimate how much they can do in a short amount of time. This can lead to overpromising and a stressful time catching up.

But overall, optimists outperform pessimists and there are many reasons why.

Optimist vs Pessimist: What’s the Difference?

Before we delve into those reasons, what is the difference between optimism and pessimism?

For one, a pessimistic person has a negative bias. They believe that things will not work out in their favor even when they have no idea of the outcome.


An optimist, on the other hand, tends to believe things will go well even without evidence. But there’s more to the story.

The Role of Expectations

Research shows that expectations play a role in our outcomes.[3] Optimists tend to expect the best out of any situation. As a result, their outlook on life has a placebo effect.[4]

Placebo refers to the research phenomenon in which a pill that has no medicinal qualities creates healing in those who expect that it will work.

By contrast, the pessimist’s outlook has a nocebo effect. This refers to a negative outcome due to an expectation that things will not turn out well for them.[5]

Resilience in an Optimist vs Pessimist

Martin Seligman, a leading researcher on optimism vs pessimism, says optimists possess a resiliency that leads to increased success.[6] For example, if something bad happens, they assume it is a temporary setback and bounce right back rather than dwelling on it.

It’s easy to see how this would serve someone well on the sports field or in the classroom. The optimist will brush off a bad play or poor test performance. They see these incidents as impermanent and related to external factors.


The pessimist, on the other hand, tends to view the same circumstances as permanent. In addition, they blame themselves for the setback rather than external factors. This makes it harder to brush them off and negatively impacts self-esteem.

Optimists and pessimists have contrasting thoughts about both positive and negative circumstances. The optimist views a crisis as short-lived, isolated, and outside their control. The pessimist views the same incident as long-lasting, all their fault, and liable to impact other areas of their lives.

When something positive happens, the optimist assumes this is the way it will always be. They also believe their talent and hard work got them the result.

In contrast, the pessimist says, “this was just a fluke and I got lucky this time.” While they blame themselves when things go wrong, they do not give themselves due credit when they succeed.

Can a Person Be Optimistic and Pessimistic?

No one is 100% optimistic or entirely pessimistic. Our survival requires a balance of both.

Those we refer to as pessimists simply have more of a negative bias. While optimists expect good things to happen more often.


Pure pessimism would lead to a miserable life hardly worth living. Unchecked optimism would result in risky behaviors that could reduce life expectancy. It might also create unhealthy financial decisions that impact one’s quality of life.[7]

In addition, a person can be optimistic in some areas of their lives and pessimistic in others. For example, they may expect their relationships to succeed but have low hopes for their finances.

Optimistic vs Pessimistic vs Realist

Although pessimists may think of themselves as realists, realists display a combination of optimistic and pessimistic qualities.

The optimist believes things will always get better. The pessimist believes things can always get worse. The realist takes things as they are and accepts them.

Realists are less idealistic and have fewer unrealistic expectations. The realist might be more interested in solving the problem than dwelling on why it happened or pretending things are better than they are.[8]

The realist thinks critically and objectively. They understand that life can be tough, but that doesn’t have to get you down emotionally. They can act as a grounding force for the optimist and help pessimists let go of negative thinking.


Realists and pessimists have more in common than optimists and realists. That’s because the first two groups do not shy away from the tougher subjects in life.

How Optimist vs Pessimist Mindset Can Impact Your Life

Say, you are an optimistic university student and you receive a poor grade on a test. You will tell yourself that it is only one test and you will study harder and do better on the next one. You are likely to believe that the teacher made the test too difficult rather than blame yourself.

As a result, your self-esteem remains intact and you bounce back and do better on the next test. Your optimistic outlook enhances your overall performance.

In the same situation, if you are a pessimistic student, you will not view a poor grade as an isolated incident. You might assume it means you are not smart enough to do well in the course. You blame yourself for your poor study habits or lack of talent rather than considering the teacher’s role in creating the test.

As a pessimistic student, you are less likely to feel motivated to study harder and do better next time. You will suffer a hit to your self-esteem due to self-blame over the low grade instead of considering external factors. In this way, your pessimism has a detrimental impact on your performance.

The same results can be extrapolated to relationships, work, and other aspects of life. If you have a fight with your partner and you are a pessimist, you might feel the whole relationship is in trouble. The optimist, however, will view the fight as an isolated incident that has no bearing on the rest of the relationship.


How to Change Your Mindset

If you are a pessimist, there is good news. You can change your outlook on life and become more optimistic.

Contrary to what some believe, optimism and pessimism are not fixed traits. They can be changed with some work. Dr. Seligman calls this learned optimism and suggests several ways to adjust your point of view.[9]

  • Find pleasure in the little things. Rather than limiting happiness to a few big events, find joy in the smaller, everyday things in life to raise your happiness.
  • Visualize what you want. Instead of expecting the worst, picture what you want to make it more attainable.
  • Be realistic. Realistic optimism is the best kind because it protects you from the dangers of unfettered optimism and prepares you for whatever the world throws at you.
  • Practice gratitude. Pay more attention to what you have than what you don’t have. It’s simply a shift in focus rather than pretending things are different from what they are.
  • Find a creative outlet. Creativity is a positive and enjoyable experience that inspires an improved mindset.
  • Be kind to yourself. Challenge your harsh inner critic with self-compassion. Stop self-blame and begin supporting yourself with positive self-talk.
  • Practice mindfulness. This simply means paying attention to the present moment. Allow and accept any thoughts and feelings that arise without judgment.
  • Find your purpose. Why are you here? Living a meaningful life will improve your state of mind, health, and well-being.

Final Thoughts

The difference between optimist and pessimist is nuanced instead of clear-cut. Optimism is better for your quality of life and performance. Unrealistic optimism, however, can lead to risky behavior and poor financial choices.

Realism, a third category between optimism and pessimism, denotes a more detached view of life. The realist accepts things as they are. They do what they need to navigate life’s difficulties without dwelling on why bad things happen.

Pessimism and optimism are malleable states. By practicing the simple exercises above, a pessimist can quickly begin to enjoy the benefits of learned optimism. These include better health, more happiness, and increased resilience.


Featured photo credit: Ángel López via unsplash.com


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