Optimism or Pessimism?

One of my clients told me, “My mom is always saying, ‘You should look at the bright side!’ but I just don’t seem to think that way.”

This begs the question: so, what’s better – optimism or pessimism?

The answer? it depends!

Turns out that both optimism and pessimism come in several varieties, each differing in some ways from the other, including in their associated outcomes or consequences.

In an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the following types of optimism and pessimism are identified:


  • dispositional optimism
  • optimistic explanatory style
  • naive optimism
  • optimistic biases or illusions
  • unrealistic optimism
  • strategic optimism


  • dispositional pessimism
  • pessimistic explanatory style
  • neurotic pessimism
  • rational pessimism
  • unrealistic pessimism
  • defensive pessimism

These different types of optimism and pessimism are not only associated with varied outcomes, they also vary in how amenable they are to change, particularly the dispositional and explanatory styles of optimism and pessimism.

Surprisingly, research is also showing that not all types of optimism are beneficial and, conversely, not all types of pessimism lead to negative outcomes.

Strategic optimism, a type in which an individual imagines an optimistic outcome and then refuses to think further about the issue, can occasionally backfire and lead to poor outcomes. Some research suggests that success is more likely if one first envisions a positive outcome and then considers what obstacles might get inthe way. This supports constructive problem-solving which can then support positive outcomes.

Also, for some people, particularly those who are anxious, defensive pessimism – setting relatively low expectations and then mentally rehearsing all the possible things that can go wrong – leads to better outcomes than if these same individuals tried to be “optimistic”! Go figure! Apparently, defensive pessimism is a useful strategy for coping with anxiety.

In fact, it’s apparently the case that there is no “one-size-fits-all”prescription for optimism. 

The important question to consider might be: how’s your approach working for you?

Picture credit: Stuart Miles, freedigitalphoto.net

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