The bright and dark sides of optimism and pessimism

“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare

Our perception of life is a matter of perspective. We were taught that pessimists see the glass as half-empty while optimists see it as half-full.

I’ve always liked to challenge truisms  —  metaphors like this oversimplify life. It makes us approach optimism and pessimism as opposite and fixed concepts — you are forced to choose a side. Life is not static, but fluid. You can drink it down and then refill the glass.

Our society worships optimists and stigmatizes pessimists — people will like you or reject you depending on your view. However, this right or wrong approach is deceiving. Both optimism and pessimism have bright and dark sides — what you do matters more than how you see the glass.

Optimism rules the world

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”  — Oscar Wilde

Optimism wasn’t always the ruler. Historically, it was associated with simplistic and unrealistic people, especially in literature such as Porter’s “Pollyanna.” Psychologists, like Freud, dismissed it considering it ‘illusory denial.’

Since the 1960s, there’s been a change in sentiment supported by growing research that correlates positivity to being successful. Positivity became king and we, inadvertently, became its servants.

Many psychologists classify the population as predominantly optimistic — some claiming 80% of people are optimistic, others stating that 60% of us are somewhat optimistic. This seems an optimistic appraisal to me. Some experts agree — they believe that optimism itself may affect the validity of research on positivity.

Research shows that optimism is correlated with increased life expectancy, better health, increased success in academia, work, and sports, and greater chances of recovery from adversity. However, many experts think most studies can’t discriminate cause from effect. Does thinking positively make us healthier? Or is it that being healthier lead us to think positively?

Optimism is a broad personality trait — it makes us believe that good things will be plentiful in the future, and bad ones scarce. But, those who weren’t born on the right side, can they learn to be more optimistic?

This simple question creates many discrepancies. Some researchers believe that yes, we can. Others think that interventions don’t make us more optimistic but instead just reduce our pessimism.

The half-empty frame

“Optimism is not simply the absence of pessimism, and well-being is not simply the absence of helplessness.” — Christopher Peterson

Alison Ledgerwood doesn’t buy that most of us see the glass half-full — she believes that our perception of the world tends to lean toward negative thoughts.

Research by this social psychologist proposes a fixed approach to the glass dilemma. We either have a ‘gain’ or a ‘loss’ frame — we see the upside or the downside in things. Even worse, our mind gets stuck in the negative more than in the positive.

Ledgerwood and her colleague studied people’s reaction to a surgical procedure by testing both a bright and dark side approach. Participants who were told the surgery had a 70% success rate, reacted positively to the prospects of going through it. Conversely, those who were told the procedure had a failure rate of 30%, reacted negatively.

To challenge the initial reaction, the first group was afterward presented with the 30% failure rate and the second one with the 70% success rate. Surprisingly, the ones who originally reacted positively now had a negative view and the others didn’t change theirs — they continue to see the procedure as negative.

This exercise proved not only that positivity can be affected by negative information but, also, that our mind can get stuck in an initial pessimistic view.

But, can we switch from one frame to another?

Another study presented people with the same challenge: 600 lives are at stake. Only that one group was asked to focus on the lives that could be saved and others on the ones that could be lost. Though both had to do the same simple math calculation (600 -100=?), the group that had to convert losses to gains took almost twice the time to get to the result than the other.

We tend to tilt toward the negative, according to Ledgerwood. We need to work harder to recover from negative views — to see the glass half-full requires an extra effort.

So, who’s right? Are we mostly optimistic? Or do we lean towards negativity? Maybe both.

The optimism bias

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne

Seeing the glass-half-full has many benefits, but there’s a downside that most optimists miss.

Optimists pay less attention to detail and fail to seek new information to challenge their rosy views leading to poor decisions. That explains why many hiring decisions go wrong. Recruiters favor candidates who look more excited and enthusiastic — both indicators of optimistic employees.

The Optimism Bias is one of the two key factors why we inaccurately calculate big projects — we tend to underestimate both time and cost. Some Governments, like the British, are now adding an extra percentage by default to offset overly positive estimations.

According to Tali Sharot, a London professor of cognitive neuroscience, 80% of us suffer from the Optimism Bias — we overestimate the likelihood of experiencing good events and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events.

How do you choose your credit card? Most people prefer a low annual fee to a high APR even though they regularly fail to clear their balances. The smaller fee is deceiving — optimists act as is they would never need the credit but end paying much more in interests

“We are more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact.” — Tali Sharot

Interestingly enough, as Sharot explains in this entertaining talk, we are more optimistic about ourselves and families, but not so optimistic about others, including our own country.

Positive people overestimate their abilities. When it comes to driving style, smarts, honesty, and modesty — to name a few — most of us believe we fare better than the rest. And consider ourselves above average. However, that’s statically impossible — we cannot all be better than everyone else.

That’s why most warning signs fail to change behavior. People agree that smoking kills, but they believe it will harm others, not them. Seeing the glass half-full creates an unrealistic view. Protect yourself from the dark side of optimism, but remain hopeful.

The bright side of pessimism

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” ― James Branch Cabell

Trying too hard to have an optimistic look can make you miserable, Oliver Burkeman explains in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

There’s a difference between being pessimistic and facing the facts. That’s what Burkeman discovered after speaking to countless psychologists, life coaches, and other experts. He invites us to challenge the assumptions and oversimplified advice regarding positive thinking.

Burkeman coined the term ‘the negative path to happiness,’ which requires, instead of trying to be always overly positive, to turn toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism — to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.

Multiple research has shown that optimism has a dark side too. Not only it can lead to poor outcomes, but it makes us underestimate risks or take less action. For example, positive affirmation might work for positive people but have detrimental consequences for those with low self-esteem — they result in worse moods.

By making optimism king, we’ve stigmatized pessimism — it has become the demonized opposite end of optimism.

Pessimism is not uni-dimensional with optimism but a separate construct — it doesn’t always have the negative outcomes that juxtapose it with optimism’s positive ones. Also, sometimes, pessimism pays off.

Defensive Pessimist is a particular type of pessimist that takes negative thinking to a whole new level. It’s a strategy that helps people reduce their anxiety — it drives focus rather than avoidance.

That’s why some pessimism comes handy from time to time.

“Most people have the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win.” — Bob Knight

The defensive pessimist focuses on the worst-case scenario — s/he identifies and takes care of things that optimists miss. This approach can help us better prepare for events that are out of our full control such as a job interview.

Also, this approach is very effective to boost confidence. A study showed how college students experienced significantly higher levels of self-confidence by embracing a defensive pessimist approach — their self-esteem rosed to similar levels of the optimists is nearly four years.

In The Power of Negative Thinking, former basketball coach Bob Knight — who has over 900 wins — believes that victory goes to the team that makes the fewest mistakes. His approach aims to prevent mistakes — it encourages players to focus on the negative, not positive. Recognizing the team’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities becomes a call to action.

Optimism and pessimism are not antagonist concepts but rather the two sides of the same coin — we need both to live a more balanced life.

Stop looking at the glass

“Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”  —  Henry James

Do you see the glass-half-full or half-empty?

Binary questions limit how we see life by forcing us to choose one option. To escape this trap, we must unask the question, as I wrote here. Rather than choosing one or the other, how can we integrate both?

Labels get us stuck

Calling people — yourself included — either optimistic or pessimist gets them stuck. It forces us to adopt one view rather than switching between them as necessary.

Being a pessimist isn’t necessarily bad — it’s what you do with that pessimism that matters. When you overplay either a positive or negative view, that’s when you limit your possibilities.

Integrate both negativity and positivity

A positive approach to life is not just about seeing only the bright side but accepting the two sides — both optimism and pessimism have advantages and disadvantages.

Positive thinking encourages us to take needed risks and expand our horizons. But it also leads us to ignore life’s dangers or exaggerate our own capabilities. Negative thinking can be detrimental when it takes over and darkens how we see the world. But a little bit of worry and doubt can keep you on your toes — a dose of “defensive pessimism” can help you neutralize the optimism bias.

Life is fluid — empty the glass (and fill it again)

A positive life is more about what we do than the labels we wear.

As positive psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom said, “Optimists are happy and healthy not because of who they are but because of how they act.”
In philosophy, Meliorism is a concept which drives our ability to improve the world through alteration — we can produce outcomes that are considered better than the original phenomenon.

Meliorism doesn’t mean ignoring the world’s evils. But to accept life’s setbacks as challenges to overcome. This joie de vivre energizes us — it boosts our desire and enthusiasm. Rather than observing if the glass is half-full or empty, we learn to enjoy it. We drink life and then find ways to refill it.

Pessimists complain that the world is hard; optimists see the bright side and ignore real challenges — they expect positive thinking will change things for the better. Negativity reminds of us being realistic; positivity gives us hope — we need both.

Our actions, not perception, help us improve the world. Idealizing things is avoidance. The same with being negative. Life is not easy — focusing on your progress will keep you motivated. You must recover the joy and pleasure in doing the work.

Enjoy the glass — what you do with it matters more than how you see the glass.

Gustavo Razzetti is a change instigator that helps people and organizations create positive change. He is on a mission to help 1,000,000 people become the best version of themselves.

This article first appeared on Medium.