IT'S AN AGE-OLD BATTLE. Pessimists think
optimists are foolish, optimists think pessimists make themselves
unnecessarily miserable. A lot of research has been done on this
issue in the last 30 years. Have we answered the question yet?
Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the
University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic people are happier
than pessimists. When something bad happens, optimists think
of it as temporary, limited in its effect, and not entirely their
fault. Pessimists do the opposite. They consider the setback
to be permanent, far-reaching and all their fault. There
are varying degrees of this, of course; its not black or
white. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes.
The main difference between optimists and
pessimists is how they explain setbacks to themselves.
Using these definitions, researchers find that optimism contributes
to good health and pessimism contributes to illness.
In several large-scale, long-term, carefully
controlled experiments, Seligman discovered that optimists are
more successful than pessimists optimistic politicians
win more elections, optimistic students get better grades, optimistic
athletes win more contests, optimistic salespeople make more
Why would this be so? Because optimism
and pessimism both tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you think a setback is permanent, why would you try to change
it? Pessimistic explanations tend to make you feel defeated
making you less likely to take constructive action. Optimistic
explanations, on the other hand, make you more likely
to act. If you think the setback is only temporary, youre
apt to try to do something about it, and because you take action,
you make it temporary. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Pessimistic people do have one advantage:
They see reality more accurately. Its the attitude to adopt
if youre attempting something risky or dangerous. But be
careful because one of the biggest counts against pessimism
is that it causes depression. More accurately, pessimism sets
up the condition for depression to occur. One bad setback can
knock a pessimist into the pit.
Since depression costs this country more
per year than heart disease (the nations number one killer),
pessimism has serious side effects. Its kind of a booby-prize
for a pessimist to be able to say, Yes, but I see reality
The good news is that a pessimist can learn
to be an optimist. Pessimists can learn to see the temporary
aspects of setbacks. They can be more specific about the effects
of it, they can learn to not take all the blame and they
can learn to take credit for the good they do. All it takes is
practice. Optimism is simply a way of thinking about good and
bad; its a cognitive skill anyone can learn.
So, what about the age-old conflict? Is
the glass half-full or half-empty? Our best answer is that the
glass is both half-full and half-empty, but youre
much better off if you think of it as half-full.
When bad happens:
Assume it wont last long, look to see what isnt
affected, and dont indulge in self-blame.
When good happens:
Consider its effects permanent, see how much of your life
is affected, and look to see how much you can take credit for.