Are You an Optimist or Pessimist?

Optimists and pessimists. We’ve all met both. On awakening, optimists open the window and say with a smile, “Good morning, God!” Pessimists? They rub their eyes; clear their throat; look out the window and say with a frown, “Good god, morning!”

Pessimists always see the dark side of clouds. Optimists? They don’t see the clouds at all because they’re walking on them! There are countless jokes about optimists and pessimists; however, in truth, it’s not a funny matter. If the rosebush you planted withered and died instead of bursting into bloom, would you laugh? If it’s disappointing when a plant fails to reach its full potential, how much more so for a human being. Sad to say, pessimists are thieves, robbing themselves of their own potential.

What is optimism? It is simply the belief there is more good in life than bad. It is reacting to life in a positive manner. It is an attitude of positive expectations. Pessimists say that optimists are Pollyannas looking at the world through pink colored glasses and living in a fantasy. Which group is grounded in reality? Are the realists pessimists or optimists?

Well, we’re all born optimists. It is our nature to be optimistic. But when we reach five or six years old, we’ve been subjected to so much negativity we begin to believe the world may be gloomy after all. As we grow into adults, we continue to hear the mantra of negativity, “It’s a rat race out there. No point in working hard when wages are so low. No point in working hard and making big bucks when the government is going to take it all in taxes. What’s the point of getting married when 50% of marriages end in divorce?” And so on and so on.

But if we were to stop, question, and analyze, how could we not be optimists? The fact that a creature as frail as man has survived and is now poised to colonize space should be ample proof of a naturally optimistic nature. Yet the question continues to rage: Who are being realistic, optimists or pessimists?

Surprise! The answer is both are realistic. Both are correct. Why? Because their disposition (optimism or pessimism) is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a young man decides to become a stand-up comic. His friends think he’s nuts, but he’s an optimist. Because he thinks he has a chance, he keeps trying. And because he keeps trying, his chances keep increasing. True, he runs into obstacles, but he’s an optimist, so hurdles are seen not as objects of fear or frustration, but as puzzles in need of a solution. Because of his positive attitude, he doesn’t give up. And do you know what happens to people who don’t give up? They reach their goal! Now repeat in your mind the same scenario, but with a pessimist. What do you think the pessimist’s chances of success are? Can you see how their negative attitude set themselves up for failure?

The characteristics of pessimists and optimists have been identified. Whenever something goes wrong, pessimists believe the problem will continue indefinitely, affect all areas of their life, and is their fault. Optimists, however, believe that problems are temporary setbacks with limited impact and due to external causes. In a word, optimists are designed to cope, pessimists designed to mope. Guess which one is a dope!

So, what if we are pessimists, or not as optimistic as we would like to be? What should we do? We can begin by pondering the words of Frederick Mann, “One of the greatest powers in the universe is individual power of choice. And the most powerful choices are positive choices.” Yes, we can choose to change and we can choose to begin today.

How do we begin? We must become aware of our negative self-talk. We need to become aware of the negative scripts that are programmed in our mind and constantly play. Self-talk and scripts such as, “I can’t do that. I’m not good enough to . . . I’m afraid to . . . That makes me angry. No use trying since I’ll probably fail.”

Whenever you catch yourself with a negative thought, immediately replace it with a positive one. It’s a simple but effective technique. So is working out in the gym. But if you want to reshape your body, working out one day for ten minutes will have no impact. The same is true for changing your attitude. If you’re serious, you have to work on it 15~20 minutes every day. Not much to ask for a new and much better you. If you come across an article or book that inspires you, read and reread it over and over again. Repetition is the key to success.

Of course, another good idea is to hang out with optimistic people. One place where you can do this is at an Optimist Club. Members begin their meetings with the following creed.

The Optimist Creed

Promise Yourself –

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

That’s enough of an introduction positive and negative temperaments, now let’s consider cynicism, pessimism, optimism, realism, and pragmatism in greater detail.

Genocide, injustice, brutality toward women, crime, poverty, pandemics; these are just a few of the many problems plaguing the world. How would you evaluate the trends? Would you say the world is going to hell in a handbasket (deteriorating rapidly)? Or do you see hopeful signs and are optimistic about the future? The answers to these questions depend on whether we’re pessimists, cynics, or optimists.

The pessimists are consumed by negative thinking and always foresee doom and gloom. Cynics cannot believe people act out of kindness or politicians and CEO’s can have the public’s best interest at heart. They mistrust others and expect the worst. Cynics and pessimists sometimes accuse optimists of wearing ‘pink colored glasses’ when, in fact, they are the ones wearing glasses. Not pink, but the black glasses of the blind, for they are blind to all the good in the world.

But, of course, they don’t agree with this. According to them, an optimist is a person who doesn’t have all the facts; a pessimist is an optimist who does have all the facts, and a cynic is a pessimist who clearly understands the facts. Even George Bernard Shaw, perhaps in jest, supported their view, for he wrote, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

That was clever of Mr. Shaw, but not accurate or truthful because cynics and pessimists cannot see the good in the world, so how can their view be accurate? Realists, on the other hand, are open-minded. They see all, not just the bad. What about optimists? They also see both the good and the bad, but focus on the good and try to change the bad when possible.

It is to the realists and optimists that we must turn to in order to bring about positive change in the world. True, pessimists and cynics can be of service by calling attention to the problems of the world, for that’s all they look for and all they find. But I’m afraid, instead of offering solutions, they just wring their hands, whine in despair, and give up.

Pragmatists don’t view the world through the prism of religious morality. They don’t ask questions about what is good or evil. Rather, they ask about what works, what benefits us, and what will solve our problems. That’s why they become realists and optimists.

What Causes Cynicism?

Cynicism is not our true nature. We are all born as optimists. Every step of a toddler’s shaky legs into the unknown is a step taken by an optimistic explorer, adventurer, and problem solver. That being said, why are there so many cynics and pessimists today?

A good part of the answer lies is the media. You see, we are inundated with negative news stories. Headlines shout, “Child murdered! Woman savagely raped! Villagers wiped out by terrorists!” Yes, they are just reporting the news, but the good news is underreported and the bad news is overreported. Remember, whether the media is TV, radio, or the press, it is a business. Their purpose is to make money, not to make you optimistic. And scary headlines draw attention and sell newspapers. Now that modern technology brings the world’s news into every home, we’re exposed to horror stories without end, for there is always something horrible happening somewhere on earth.

If one newspaper headline is, “Boa constrictor devours baby!” and another is “Poverty rate declines by 12%,” which article would you read? Isn’t it odd that a story that affects the lives of thousands of families (the poverty rate) is ignored for a story that affects just one family?

Is There Any Evidence For Optimism?

There is a good chance that the news you have been bombarded with has convinced you the world is growing increasingly violent. But what are the facts? It is estimated that 30% of our ancient male ancestors in the hunter-gatherer societies had a violent death. In comparison, even including two world wars, the percentage of male violent deaths in the 20th century fell to 1%. Now, in the 21st century, the rate continues to decline.

The Human Security Centre at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia annually produces the Human Security Report. This project is funded by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Here is a sample of their findings:

“Challenging the expert consensus that the threat of global terrorism is increasing, the Human Security Brief 2007 reveals a sharp net decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world. Fatalities from terrorism have declined by some 40 percent, while the loose-knit terror network associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has suffered a dramatic collapse in popular support throughout the Muslim world.

“The Brief also describes and analyses (analyzes) the extraordinary, but largely unnoticed, positive change in sub-Saharan Africa’s security landscape. The number of conflicts being waged in the region more than halved between 1999 and 2006; the combat toll dropped by 98 percent.

“Finally, the Brief updates the findings of the 2005 Human Security Report, and demonstrates that the decline in the total number of armed conflicts and combat deaths around the world has continued. The number of military coups has also continued to decline, as have the number of campaigns of deadly violence waged against civilians.”

Are you beginning to see a different picture? Are you starting to find a reason to be hopeful and optimistic? But what about the greedy capitalists that caused the economic tailspin? Can we hope to find improvements in this area as well? Yes says Jason McCabe Calacanis (Founder of the Silicon Alley Reporter; chairman of The Weblogs, Inc. Network), for he writes:

“Capitalism is becoming more closely aligned with the forces of good (e.g., philanthropy) than with the forces of greed. As the polarization of wealth peaked, the press and public became obsessed with the `Greed is good’ meme in the eighties and the `Rules don’t apply to the Rich’ nineties (think Enron and WorldCom). However, the real story was brewing, and we read it first on Edge and witnessed it in Ted Turner’s gift to the United Nations.

“The most successful businesspeople in the world have decided to dedicate their brains and bank accounts to fixing the world, leaving politics and politicians on the sidelines. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, John Doerr, and Pierre Omidyar − among many others − are demonstrating that the true goal of winning is giving. The brass ring has moved from private aviation and mega-yachts to making a mega-pledge at Bill Clinton’s annual summit.”

Humanitarian, historian, and acclaimed international leader, George McGovern also defended optimism when he said, “It is simply untrue that all our institutions are evil, that all politicians are mere opportunists, that all aspects of university life are corrupt. Having discovered an illness, it’s not terribly useful to prescribe death as a cure.”

Some Consequences of Cynicism

Left untreated, cynicism can have dire consequences, for as the electorate loses faith in politicians and the electoral process, they stop voting. And the declining number of mainstream voters opens the door for fringe or malevolent groups to show up at the polls and eventually win an election.

On June 3, 2006, in his Commencement Address at Knox College (Illinois), popular Stephen Colbert spoke out against cynicism, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”

As Oscar Wilde pointed out, a cynic “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This makes him or her ungrateful, unhappy, and unproductive. And because of the mind-body connection, these negative emotions have a detrimental impact on the body. For example, Dr Nalini Ranjit, a Researcher from the University of Michigan, headed a study of 6,814 people and found that cynical distrust was associated with signs of inflammation which in turn increase the risk of heart disease.

Overcoming Cynicism

1. Practice critical thinking. We are in the habit of challenging the assumptions of others, but rarely, if ever, challenge our own. If you find yourself feeling cynical or pessimistic, stop and think things through. Ask yourself whether you wish to be a cynic, pessimist, realist, or optimist. Also ask yourself which choice will move you forward and which will hold you back.

2. An effective tool to fight negativity is to set lofty goals. Use your dreams to overcome cynicism. Working toward your goals will keep your mind off negative thoughts and inspire you. A simple example of a lofty goal is to make the world a better place by remaining cheerful and treating others with kindness and respect.

3. Study history, read biographies, and watch documentaries to discover what’s wonderful about the world and life. Also, the primary difference between pessimists and optimists is what they look for. Optimists look for goodness; find it, and attract others because of their cheerful disposition. Pessimists look for something to complain about or attack, and as a result, alienate others.

4. Practice meditation. When you discover the beauty of the world within, you’ll awaken to the beauty of the world without. After experiencing the peace of mind that meditation brings, you will be at peace with the world.

5. Be a realist; accept the good with the bad. The difficulties we have to face are merely the tickets or price we have to pay to gain admission to the adventure of life. For each problem you face, focus exclusively on its opportunities and solutions. Keep in mind we find what we look for, so as long as we look for the positive, we’ll find it.

6. Get involved in personal development. Develop your strengths and confidence. How can we believe in others unless we first believe in ourselves?

7. Choose your friends wisely. The good news is enthusiasm is contagious. The bad news is cynicism and pessimism are also contagious. So, unless you’re willing to risk contamination, stay away from grossly negative people.

8. Develop self-reliance. If you can depend on yourself, you’ll feel less pessimistic. For a program on developing self-reliance, click here

9. Understand that whatever happens to you, happens because of you. For details, click here.

10. If hoodlums, thugs, and criminals can transform themselves for the better, so can you. To learn more, click here.

11. A good deal of cynicism and pessimism occurs in the workplace. To cut down on it, avoid criticism and gossip. Don’t belittle, uplift; don’t tear down, build up; don’t discourage, encourage. Become a force for good.

12. Cynics and pessimists often like to take part in political and social protests. They define themselves by what they are against. Protesting against poverty, for example, is much easier than working hard to help those in need and to help the community eliminate the problem. Define yourself by what you believe in, commit yourself to it, and champion your cause with effective action, not empty words.

Let’s remember that the way things are is not the way things have to be. We can make the world a better place. One way of doing so is to join the army of optimists. And as we do so, perhaps all those we meet and work with will be bathed in our light, and we in their light.

Let’s especially be on the alert for young people who need our encouragement, for as Maya Angelou said, “There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” And General Douglas MacArthur continues, “In the central place of every heart there is a recording chamber; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, and courage, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, and then only, are you grown old.”



The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman

It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear By Gregg Easterbrook

Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill

The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity By Catherine A. Sanderson

Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential AND HOW YOU CAN ACHIEVE YOURS by Shirzad Chamine


Are Intelligent People More Pessimistic?

Pessimism of Strength

The Difference Between Optimistic and Pessimistic People

Note: This is a significantly updated version of the original article from 2009.