General Question

wundayatta's avatar

Pessimism vs Optimism?

Asked by wundayatta (58638points) October 13th, 2008

Pessimistic people, I believe, think they are being realists. They need to see the world as it is. It makes them uncomfortable to lie to themselves or have others lie to them. It may be hard for them to follow social niceties, because they see that as a form of lying. They believe they can’t solve either the world’s problems or personal problems unless they are brutally honest about what is going on. Often times, they are very critical of themselves. Maybe too much. They may have difficulty with compliments, because they think that complimenters are optimists, and optimists lie.

Optimists use positive thinking as a way to build up their confidence and happiness. It helps them achieve their goals. They seem to resent people who are not chipper and happy, and sometimes they blame the unhappy people for bringing it on themselves. They seem to overlook inconvenient truths. They are pollyanaish. They always look on the bright side. They believe this helps them succeed at things because believing success is possible is crucial to creating success.

What’s your take on pessimists and optimists? If you had to choose a camp, which one are you in?

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31 Answers

poofandmook's avatar

I’m a pessimist. I don’t think it’s healthy to be too optimistic. To me, it seems like bottling their emotions. When things go wrong, they just plaster on that happy face. One of these days, they’re going to run out of plaster.

Unless they’re so good at it, that they can actually NOT be upset, rather than just pretending they’re not upset. I don’t know. Frankly, I’m sort of glad I’m a pessimist. Hope for the best and expect the worst, so that when the worst doesn’t happen, it’s a pleasant surprise.

lapilofu's avatar

I’d put myself in the optimistic camp, but I’d also consider myself a realist. I think that my optimism stems from a studied take on how the world really is. For instance, I usually assume the best intentions in people, because I actually do believe that everyone is good at their core and it’s been my experience that people generally mean well.

And I usually assume that most of the terrible things that happen to most individuals (major tragedies mostly excepted, but even then…) will pass with time, because it has consistently been my experience that none of the terrible things that happened to me have been the end of the world or anything I couldn’t overcome.

cookieman's avatar

I’m generally a pessimist – but I try hard not to be. It’s just my nature.

nikipedia's avatar

Can I be both? Pessimistic when the situation calls for it, and optimistic the rest of the time? Hope for the best, plan for the worst?

I definitely think my constitution lends itself to pessimism, but I try to foster and encourage optimism by reframing negative situations, granting the benefit of the doubt, being grateful for the good things and doing what I can to change the bad things in my life.

If I really did have to choose between the two, I guess I would rather be pessimistic and right about reality versus optimistic and have my head in the sand—but I truly believe that is a false dichotomy. You can critically examine the world, be honest with yourself, and still be hopeful and happy.

lapilofu's avatar

What I mean to say, is that it’s not a plaster. I honestly believe that the world is more good than bad. And that’s from experience, so it’s also what I consider to be a realistic take.

I hate that pessimism seems to be considered more realistic and optimism more delusional.

wundayatta's avatar

@nikipedia, you sound like an optimist to me. The ability to reframe negative situations and be grateful for good things sounds like the skills of an optimist. Real pessimists may want to do those things, but they can’t.

nikipedia's avatar

@daloon: I disagree—it’s a skill, like anything else, that you can get better at with practice. It might not come naturally to a pessimist, but that’s why it’s a conscious decision I make.

wundayatta's avatar

@nikipedia: I’m real sorry to tell you this, but it’s in the manual: “pursuant to Article 2, Section 3, subparagraph 19, no true pessimist may engage in mental jujitsu designed to achieve a more positive outlook on life. Such efforts are doomed to fail, anyway, but they also involve an aura of unrealism that is likely to lead to self-delusion.”

See? Right there. In the book. ;-)

does anyone really know what “pursuant” means?

lapilofu's avatar

@nikpedia, Are you assuming that pessimism and optimism are innate characteristics, not learned?

gailcalled's avatar

I see them as oversimplified labels for complicated behavior, at least for me – who is the only person I can speak for.

bodyhead's avatar

If a person is a true realist the following will be true:
When the world around the realist is bad, they will seem a pessimist.
When the world around the realist is good, they will seem an optimist.

Therefor, I seem a pessimist even though I’m a realist. The world of today casts an unhealthy shadow over my life. There are far to many bad men in power and good men in jail for me to be happy with the way things are.

fireside's avatar

pessimism
Noun
1. the tendency to expect the worst in all things
2. the doctrine of the ultimate triumph of evil over good

optimism
Noun
1. the tendency to take the most hopeful view in all matters
2. Philosophy the doctrine of the ultimate triumph of good over evil

Based on these definitions, I would consider myself to be more realistic but lean towards optimism.

There’s an analogy I once heard about being like the paper airplane.
If the airplane has it’s nose pointed down, it will spiral downwards,
but if it has it’s nose pointed up, then it will rise on the air currents.

I know I’m mangling the analogy, but i think its clear

gailcalled's avatar

@fireside;(It’s not a bad analogy; just switch it’s = it is clear, and its (possessive) nose.)

fireside's avatar

thanks, gail – “its/it’s” gets me all the time.

Sloane2024's avatar

I believe that one’s environment and previous experiences are great determining factors in whether he or she is an optimist or pessimist. If time after time, life has yielded incessant unfortunate events, then one is more likely to lean to a negative perspective as opposed to those who’ve had relatively simple and easy lives, deprived of much heartache or pain, really have no reason to view things in a dim light. I don’t know… I’ve been dealt a pretty rough hand of cards so far, but I still tend to view things positively… I supposed it just depends on the person…

jvgr's avatar

Well your logic is faulty.
As a life-long pessimist, I’ll only talk about that side.

“Pessimistic people, I believe, think they are being realists. They need to see the world as it is.”
This is true (at least with respect to me.)

“It makes them uncomfortable to lie to themselves or have others lie to them”
This is absurd because it implies that optimists, therefore are comfortable lying to themselves and having others lie to them. (And what are the people who lie to others: optimists or pessimists?)

“It may be hard for them to follow social niceties, because they see that as a form of lying.”
Way past absurd.
Pessimists are not the only rude folks you’ll encounter
Who the h*** could imagine that anyone is rude because they think to do otherwise is lying.
Rude people are not confined to any one outlook.

“They believe they can’t solve either the world’s problems or personal problems unless they are brutally honest about what is going on”
No one can solve any problems unless they know what the problem is (honesty required here)
What is brutal honesty? Facts are just that. They have no personality or character. We may not like a particular set of facts, but that doesn’t make them brutal.”
Brutal is a word of emotion. Problems tend to be solved without emotion (not to be confused with empathy)

“Often times, they are very critical of themselves. Maybe too much”
No correlation between outlook on the world in general and self evaluation.
If anyone avoids critically appraising their own performance, then how do they know their work is good enough? If you don’t reach a point where you know your work is good, you’ll always need someone to grade you. How will you ever improve?
Though self criticism is unrelated, some people (like me) do carry it a bit too far for some people. The only real danger here is that this attitude can easily be instilled in children (ie too much self criticism)
Too much (generally not good); None (always bad)

They may have difficulty with compliments”
I do have this issue, but pessimism isn’t part of it.
I depend on my mind for my vocation.
In that mind of mine, I do believe that every one has the same capacity/potential, therefore I am not special.
I tend to, then, ignore compliments related to my work because anyone can do it.

“because they think that complimenters are optimists”
I’m a pessimist, I give compliments therefore I must be a liar; schizophrenic…?

“and optimists lie.”
Then who in there right mind would want to believe or be an optimist?

While your subject is interesting, your logic is faulty. If it is truly of interest, I’m sure you could easily do some research (internet, libraries) that would provide some interesting information on the traits common to each group and perhaps even some credible theories about how we each end up one way or the other.

I find that my optimistic friends tend to say things like: “Everything works out for the best”
This of course is untrue (but since optimists lie, do they mean it?)
Everything will work itself out, one way or another.
If whatever is needing to work itself out has any potential of negatively affecting me or my loved ones, I’m not really going to leave it up to hope or chance if I can actively do something to affect the outcome.

Pessism/Optimism is just a way of sorting out the world and dealing with it to the best of our abilities.

Both see the glass correctly: It is half empty and it is half full. At the same time.

JackAdams's avatar

I always see “the glass” as being “half-full.”

I also always see it as belonging to someone else.

jvgr's avatar

Sloane2024
“believe that one’s environment and previous experiences are great determining factors in whether he or she is an optimist or pessimist.”
This could be.

If time after time, life has yielded incessant unfortunate events, then one is more likely to lean to a negative perspective…”
As a life-long pessimist, this is untrue.
I’ve not experienced incessant unfortunate events in my life, and I do know people who have and are definitely optimists.(Apparently you are one)
Nor do I believe I have a negative outlook on the world.

”...I’ve been dealt a pretty rough hand of cards so far, but I still tend to view things positively… I supposed it just depends on the person…”
You are your own worst example for your case. (but I’m glad you have survived to continue another day..

jvgr's avatar

gailcalled: You may only be able to speak for yourself, but there are a few folks on tv who know you and know what you want and even speak for you.

gailcalled's avatar

jvgr: Not clear, that ^^. Plz explain (probably better on PM.)

wundayatta's avatar

@jvgr: You know, that was a really wonderful set of responses. Intimidating, but wonderful. Thanks for taking the time.

I am not capable of taking on each point, because mainly I was not thinking of my intro as an objective definition, but as a subjective definition. It’s true for me, and I accept that it is not true at all for you. If I had been trying for that, I’d feel bad, but as I wasn’t, I don’t feel that bad. Just a little disappointment that I got it so wrong as far as you’re concerned.

I did want to address one point, not to defend it, but tell you what I was thinking, on the off chance that you didn’t see the same thing. You said,

>This is absurd because it implies that optimists, therefore are comfortable lying to themselves and having others lie to them.

The lies I believe optimists tell themselves are often known as “affirmations.” Sometimes they are lies of ommission. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the therapy of optimists, relies on these kinds of lies, where you list all the things you think you have accomplished, and none of the things where you failed. This supposedly lets you feel like an accomplished person, which, I admit, is nice, if you can do it. Affirmations, of course, are where you picture yourself succeeding at something, and not letting yourself dwell on all the things that might go wrong. Sometimes they also involve these lies where you act as if you are happy, even though you aren’t.

As I said, Pollyanna’s. Seeing things through rose-colored glasses. That sort of thing.

Anyway, surely you will rip that apart, but that’s what I had in mind. To me, those things are lies.

lapilofu's avatar

And yet isn’t it also a lie for a pessimist to rationalize away any compliments they receive? If someone tells me, “You have nice hair,” and I say, “Thanks,” but really am thinking to myself she’s just saying that because she needed something to say, not because she actually likes my hair can’t that also be a lie? And not necessarily any more realistic than an optimistic view?

deaddolly's avatar

Think I’m a little of both. Regarding myself, I’m pessimistic.
Regarding others: Optimistic still…I continue to hope ppl aren’t really as stupid as they prove themselves to be time after time.

Bri_L's avatar

I try to be an optimist but fight back and forth with pessimism.

There was a LOT said about optimists and pessimists said up above. I believe Daloon and Sloane2024 have very valid points with sound logic.

I don’t believe that one’s own single perspective can negate or confirm one way or the other. That would be illogical.

jvgr's avatar

daloon ”@jvgr: You know, that was…Intimidating,”
Sorry that you felt it was intimidating. I never contemplate these kinds of arguments in any personal way (ie I have no reason to believe that you are anything but a fine, upstanding person); it’s just the logic of your presentation.

The only reason I responded, at all, was a combination of interest and your willingness to lay it out as you did. Had you chosen to do otherwise, it would have been much less interesting to get in to.

“I did want to address one point, not to defend it, but tell you what I was thinking, on the off chance that you didn’t see the same thing. You said,

>This is absurd because it implies that optimists, therefore are comfortable lying to themselves and having others lie to them.

The lies I believe optimists tell themselves…”

It’s been a long time since I took a psychology course and I’m no psychologist, but:
I think the therapy you describe is more related to those whose self image is in the dumps and has been for so long they no longer no which way is up. Those affirmations would be useful in trying to make the individuals realize that they aren’t total failures and have no valid reason for dumping on themselves continuously. I don’t think their orientation (pessimistic/optimistic has much to do with it)

Ultimately I’m saying that pessimism/optimism is an internal construct that we create (environment?, upbringing?, genetics?) and is simply a way we comprehend the world, but that it doesn’t mean pessimists are so clouded with doom and gloom that the end result is “why try”, or that optimists are so rosy and bubbly that “everything will be ok, just be happy”. And that the variety of characteristics you attribute to each aren’t consistent enough (simply by my own experience of others) to make the connections you did.

“Anyway, surely you will rip that apart, but that’s what I had in mind. To me, those things are lies”

Well ripping isn’t my goal (clarifying is) and, in the end, we probably all lie to ourselves about something at sometime just to ease the pain of the moment. When we start telling lies to ourselves that are contrary to all that our close friends and associates say and/or circumstances clearly indicate, we do have a problem.

Thanks for the response.

augustlan's avatar

I have been called both, at times. Like DD, I am more of a pessimist when it comes to my life. Regarding the world as a whole, I have been called an “idealist”, with a negative connotation akin to my being an unrealistic optimist. I defended that side of me with the response that if there were no idealists, nothing would ever change for the better. I am not, however, a Pollyanna. I am not foolish enough to believe things will change for the better, just that attempts should be made. As a realist, I know that the attempts may not succeed.

tyrantxseries's avatar

I believe people need a way to define their reality and how their life will be in the future,
as for me I don’t don’t know,I don’t think I’m either.

makemo's avatar

There’s a fine line between people who are helplessly optimistic, and those who appreciate the feeling whenever it appears.

I find it an interesting question to ask – what are the triggering factors? One answer to that, has probably got a lot to do with social conditions, current and past. If you’ve had a tough time in life, nature will in most cases prevent you from feeling happy about, ‘just about everything’. Therefore, you get selective.

This is where the other interesting part comes into play. There are different ways of expressing optimism and pessimism. You may even be pessimistic in an optimistic way, or the other way around. There are also people who tend to be (or act) optimistic, but in a pessimistic kind of way.

As a personal preference, I don’t mind real optimism at all. In healthy proportions, it has a sound affection on me. On the other hand, the same goes for pessimism. In certain doses, and regarding things that I wholeheartedly think is wrong, bad, dull, disproportionately estimated, etc. – I definitely feel great being pessimistic. I try not to exclude one or the other of these two, natural states of mind.

They are two sides of the same coin.

philosopher's avatar

I am realistic and a little cynical but despite that I am still a positive person. I never give up and I am usually successful about what is important to my family. I have great perseverance .

Matthew_Leitch's avatar

A key insight into this is that the spectrum ‘optimism-realism-pessimism’ is not the only important dimension. A second crucial dimension is how open minded we are in our predictions for the futre.

I wrote about this in an article, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Open-Minded Realism” available here http://www.managedluck.co.uk/objectivist/index.shtml

Being open minded helps us to be energetic yet cautious, prepared for the best and for the worst, and eager to learn more.

I hope you find the article helpful.

wundayatta's avatar

@Matthew_Leitch I think that’s an interesting insight into this issue. I do tend to see myself in a negative light—maybe because I have not achieved much that I hoped to achieve, such as becoming a published writer.

I see people using affirmations in places where they make me uncomfortable. The idea of looking in the mirror and mouthing an affirmation seems ridiculous, especially since in my mind I’d problem be thinking a repudiation.

The affirmation world says that if I were optimistic and able to believe in myself, I would accomplish what I want to. I would be a writer by now. But I’m not and that makes me mad at myself, but not mad enough to do anything about it. I don’t think I’ll be a writer unless some producer finds me at a drug store.

Is that realism or pessimism? What about the fact that I discount everything else that I do?

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