Depending on whether your glass is half-empty or half-full, you will interpret both good and bad life events differently. While one person might swing until they hit a home run and then think baseball ‘their thing,’ another may play one game and decide they’re no good at the sport because they lost the game, despite hitting a homer. We often accuse each other of being pessimistic or optimistic without thinking through what the phrase means. I’ve been asked many times in my life whether I was a pessimist or an optimist, words that we seem to love in the US. Have you been asked this? And can you actually define the two terms? Does pessimism just mean being grouchy, or melancholy, and always expecting the worst, like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh? The answer is both yes and no, and there is more to the definition than this.
Pessimism and Optimism are About Beliefs, Not Feelings
Pessimism is more concerned with your beliefs about yourself and the events of your life (both negative and positive), than about your outward emotional state. More specifically, a pessimist attributes failure to internal, stable, and global causes. If they are an entrepreneur, a pessimist might believe that a venture failed because they lacked charisma or knowledge (internal factors), that this is likely to happen in their next venture (a stability attribution), and that the failure is not confined to the specific venture but will haunt their entire career (a global, or all-encompassing prediction).
As most business ventures fail, it is very common for entrepreneurs to tend strongly toward optimism because of the high need to ‘roll with the punches’ and keep trying. Optimism is defined as attributing failure to external, variable, and specific causes. The optimistic entrepreneur might see the client-relationship or the current market as the key factor in the failure (external), believe that other ventures will succeed (variable), or decide that the particular venture was just too-risky (specific). If you call this being ‘out of touch with reality,’ you might tend toward pessimism – after all, every successful business began as a venture.
It is also possible to be pessimistic about success. Pessimists don’t see themselves as the key to a success, but rather give the credit to outside forces (external), think the next venture may fail even though this one succeeded (variable), and think of success as unique and do not expect it to happen again (specific). Optimists attribute success to internal, stable, and global causes: “I was a key player in getting this off the ground, it can be done again, and I expect to experience success in the future.” Research reveals that outlook has a powerful impact. Pessimists – who tend to be in the majority in a given population – are more likely to give up in the face of adversity and to experience depression, while optimists tend to be higher achievers and have better overall health.
How We Learn Optimism
In his seminal work Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, the modern-day father of Positive Psychology, insists that we can learn optimism and ‘escape’ from pessimism. Seligman argues against the commonly-accepted notion that optimism and pessimism are static character traits. To prove its argument, the book expands on Albert Ellis’ ABC model of human experience and response, adding a ‘D’ and ‘E.’ In this model for training in optimism, Adversity (an event, such as doing poorly in a test) leads to Belief (possibly feeling that the professor has a malicious agenda), and finally a Consequence (quitting the class and bad-mouthing the professor). Seligman expand this by teaching that one should enter into Disputation with the pessimistic beliefs (find counter-evidence, such as acknowledging poor preparation for the test), and finally Energization (enter into new action and celebrate the accomplishment of overcoming the negative belief, such as resolving to ace the next test and embrace a leadership role in the class).
Christian Counseling to Develop Optimism
In my following article, I will continue to discuss optimism by mapping out what the Bible has to say about this concept, and the important paradigm-shift that is required if we are to understand this principle from a spiritual perspective.
As a Christian counselor, it is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways they have already overcome in life, and how God has uniquely shaped them both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.