Pessimism can be described as a tendency to think negatively. A person who is pessimistic may frequently identify and focus on the negative, or unfavorable, aspects of a situation rather than concentrating on what is going right.
Optimism is considered by many to be the opposite of pessimism.
What Is Pessimism?
Pessimism can refer to a fixation on the darker aspects of a situation or event, to the expectation of a negative outcome, or to a lack of hope for the future. Those who tend toward pessimism may also feel helpless and believe that any actions taken are unlikely to have an impact on a negative outcome. They may believe themselves to be passive agents in the world and largely attribute any chance of success to external factors that cannot be controlled.
Optimism and pessimism are not necessarily completely opposite constructs, as is commonly believed to be the case. Rather, they can be thought of as a continuum: A person can maintain optimism about certain areas of life and tend toward pessimism in other areas.
Some examples of pessimism include:
- A person hears the phone ring and assumes the caller will be a bill collector or telemarketer.
- A person going to a party assumes the event will be boring or otherwise unpleasant.
- A person interviewing for a job believes the interview will be unsuccessful or that the job will be given to someone else for reasons unrelated to interview performance.
Philosophical pessimism, meanwhile, refers to the belief that existence is “net negative,” and that humanity would be fundamentally better off if it had never existed. This idea is often connected to Arthur Schopenhauer, a proponent of philosophical pessimism.
Pessimism as a Personality Trait
Pessimism can manifest as a personality trait, as studies show it may be at least partially influenced by genetics. Genetic makeup can influence an individual’s perception of the world by amplifying negative experiences and emotions. People who are pessimistic may also be more likely to notice potential risks and experience anxiety or worry. However, environmental factors and epigenetics also play a role in whether one tends toward pessimism.
Some individuals may also be more prone to pessimism bias, meaning they are more likely to overestimate the probability of a negative outcome. Some research has indicated pessimism bias may be more common in women than in men. It’s also been shown to occur more frequently in people who experience depression.
According to a 2013 study, pessimism is more associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, while optimism is connected to the left hemisphere. Lower self-esteem was also tied to the right side of the brain. This research suggests that both pessimism and optimism are necessary for an individual’s survival, and that communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain could help people find a healthy balance between a pessimistic and optimistic outlook.
Although pessimism can be a broad perspective that affects general worldview, it is not necessarily a stable trait that remains unchanged throughout one’s lifetime. Research suggests that people can learn to be more optimistic.
Pessimism, Depression, and Well-Being
As the idea of positive psychology has increased in popularity, much has been written about the ways in which maintaining a positive, hopeful outlook can improve mental and physical health. However, research about the effects of pessimism on physical health is somewhat contradictory: While some studies have found that an optimistic outlook can lead to a longer life, others have found that pessimism about the future can actually increase longevity. The tendency to anticipate negative outcomes may lead people to take more precautions, which may in turn lead to improved health.
Pessimism has been linked to mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression. Some research links pessimism to inflammation and lower immunity. One study even identified increased pessimism as a suicide risk in adults.
A person who consistently anticipates negative outcomes may be more likely to feel sad or worried, but a pessimistic outlook does not necessarily lead to the development of mental health concerns. In fact, a concept known as defensive pessimism explains how pessimism can be a good thing. People who are defensively pessimistic consider what might go wrong in order to explore their potential reactions to the negative situation or occurrence. They may be more prepared to deal with difficult emotions than those who do not tend to consider possible negative outcomes, and they may also be more likely to consider a variety of strategies helpful for avoiding and solving problems.
Cynicism vs. Pessimism
Pessimism may be closely associated with cynicism, but there are some key differences between the two concepts. While cynicism may develop over time and is typically directly related to negative life experiences, pessimism may more often appear as a personality trait with or without life experience. And while some amount of pessimism may be viewed as healthy and balanced, cynicism is most often seen as detrimental to one’s mental health. However, both cynics and pessimists may tend not to trust others or believe that others have good intentions.
How to Overcome Pessimism
While some amount of pessimism is necessary and can even serve a protective function, too much pessimism or unbalanced pessimism may lead to poorer mental health and can cause people to limit themselves, leading to the loss of opportunities for growth and success.
Some strategies that may help individuals to be less pessimistic include:
- Challenge cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion may lead people to see reality from a perspective that does not line up with reality. Challenging unrealistically pessimistic thoughts, such as, “There’s no way I’ll get that job,” or “Nobody understands me” can help people realize some of their pessimistic beliefs are not rooted in reality.
- Make a list of pros and cons. Make a list of pros and cons about a situation, and if possible, challenge yourself to come up with at least one “pro” for every “con” on your list. While this strategy might not apply in extreme circumstances, it may help you find a balanced perspective in many situations.
- Seek out optimistic friends. Speaking with a friend or loved one who tends toward optimism can expose a pessimistic individual to more optimistic perspectives. These people may help you rethink ideas or opportunities you might have ruled out due to excessive pessimism.
- Consider the past. Think about a time when things went better than expected. Ask yourself, “How many of the bad things I have anticipated come true?” More often than not, pessimism may lead us to have unrealistically negative expectations. When we line these expectations up with examples from our own lived experiences, an overly pessimistic approach may appear to be less of a reasonable perspective.
If an overly pessimistic outlook is causing trouble in your life or relationships, you don’t have to handle it alone. A trained and empathetic therapist can help you overcome mental health symptoms associated with pessimism and challenge thought patterns that lead to pessimism. Find the right therapist for you.
- Chang, E.C., Yu, E. A., Lee, J. Y., Hirsch, J. K., Kupfermann, Y., & Kahle, E.R. (2012, December 16). An examination of optimism/pessimism and suicide risk in primary care patients: Does belief in a changeable future make a difference? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 37(4), 796-804. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10608-012-9505-0
- Connor, S. (2016, November 20). Is pessimism really bad for you? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/20/is-pessimism-bad-for-you
- Ericson, J. (2013, October 10). Is pessimism genetic? Research shows your outlook might be cloudy by genetic design. Medical Daily. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/pessimism-genetic-research-shows-your-outlook-might-be-cloudy-genetic-design-259573
- Hecht, D. (2013, September 30). The neural basis of optimism and pessimism. Experimental Neurobiology, 22(3), 173-199. doi: 10.5607/en.2013.22.3.173
- Lang, F. R. (2013, February 27). Pessimism about the future may lead to longer, healthier life, research finds. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/02/pessimism-future.aspx
- Mansour, S. B., Jouini, E., & Napp, C. (2006, October 19). Is there a “pessimistic” bias in individual beliefs? Evidence from a simple survey. Theory and Decision, 61(4), 345-362. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s11238-006-9014-2
- Mosley, M. (2013, July 10). Can science explain why I’m a pessimist? BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23229014
- Smith, C. (2014, December 17). Philosophical pessimism: A study in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1160&context=philosophy_theses
- Thomas, S. P. (2011, January 5). In defense of defensive pessimism. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 32(1), 1. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3109/01612840.2011.535350
Last Updated: 12-5-2019
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