Pessimism can be described as a tendency to think negatively. A person who has pessimistic tendencies may frequently find and focus on the negative aspects of a situation rather than concentrating on the positive ones. Optimism is considered 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. 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.
The following situations can help illustrate pessimism:
- A person hears the phone ring and assumes the caller will be a bill collector or telemarketer.
- A person going to a party assumes that the event will be boring or otherwise unpleasant.
- A person interviewing for a job believes that the interview will be unsuccessful or that the job will be given to someone else for reasons unrelated to interview performance.
Pessimism as a Personality Trait
Studies show pessimism 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. However, environmental factors also play a role in whether one tends toward optimism or pessimism.
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 and Well-Being
Recently, the idea of positive psychology has increased in popularity, and 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. 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.
- Chang, E.C., Yu, E.A., Lee, J.Y., Hirsch, J.K., Kupfermann, Y., & Kahle, E.R. (2012). 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.
- Ericson, J. (2013). 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). The neural basis of optimism and pessimism. Experimental Neurobiology, 22(3), 173-199.
- Lang, F.R. (2013). 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
- Mosley, M. (2013). Can science explain why I’m a pessimist? BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23229014
- Thomas, S.P. (2011). In defense of defensive pessimism. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 32(1), pp. 1.
Last Updated: 11-18-2015
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