Pessimism is a perspective with a tendency towards a negative outlook on life. There can be benefits to a pessimistic outlook and there are ways to make this perspective work for you, like using this attitude to prepare yourself for anxiety-producing events. If pessimism is negatively impacting your mood or quality of life, practicing gratitude and mindfulness can help you be more optimistic.
What Is Pessimism?
Pessimism is defined as an attitude that causes a person to always expect the worst will happen to them.1 While it is defined as an attitude, pessimism is also considered a personality trait. When observing pessimism, it is influenced by what researchers call a cognitive or explanatory style. These styles refer to the way people make sense of the events that happen in their daily lives.
The three levels of cognitive and explanatory styles are:2
Pessimists are more likely to believe that things happen because of themselves (internal) rather than some outside situation (external). They also believe things happen because of their own traits rather than having a difficult day, and that the cause impacts in a number of areas in their lives (global) rather than only one specific section (i.e. a trait rather than one difficulty with understanding a topic of study).2 Pessimistic explanatory styles may lead to negative thoughts and cognitive distortions, where you take notice of the negative and ignore the positive.2
Signs of Pessimism
For a pessimist, a common thought might be “I had a car wreck because I’m an idiot.” This thought holds a number of significant cognitive distortions as well as influences depressive emotions and symptoms.2 Perspectives like this can be dangerous to your functioning and it may be hard to understand what pessimism looks like.
Some signs that you may be more pessimistic include:3
- Expecting the worst in a situation
- Experiencing surprise when a situation turns out well
- Becoming annoyed with those who are more optimistic
- Not exploring things you want to try because you believe you may fail or that the risks overrule the benefits of trying
- Thinking negative thoughts or engaging in negative self-talk (i.e. “I’m not worth trying this”)
- Holding lower views of yourself and your skills, which can lead to you believing you don’t belong in a certain role
- Focusing and/or fixating on your shortcomings or flaws and not allowing yourself to observe your skills and strengths
- Believing that enjoyable or positive things will come to an end
While you may not experience all of these, it can be hard to make sense of what you are experiencing, especially if you are not used to this outlook.
The Spectrum of Optimism & Pessimism
While pessimism can be a difficult thing to experience at its worst, there is a spectrum between pessimism and optimism. This spectrum covers a personality trait range where many people tend to fall somewhere in the middle, although people can have a mainly optimistic outlook.
Where pessimists tend to have a more negative perspective on life events, optimism is defined as “hopefulness or the attitude that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled.”1,4 Differing from the above, optimists’ explanatory or cognitive style tends to lend towards attributing causes to outside forces, a temporary situation, and a specific influence.2
Signs that one is more optimistic include:5
- Expecting things to work out as planned
- Feeling and perceiving that the future looks promising and hopeful
- Feeling grateful for the things that you appreciate in your life
- Appreciating challenges for the lesson as well as the good things that can come from them
- Exploring opportunities and challenges and feeling like you will succeed in these ventures
- Holding a positive and hopeful attitude about yourself and others
- Not allowing something negative to ruin the rest of your day
Many people tend to range somewhere between these two absolutes of optimism and pessimism, but there is a significant difference in the experience. While it appears that those who fall on the optimistic end of the spectrum have a more positive outlook, this does not mean those who are more pessimistic in nature do not have skills and strengths themselves.
Are There Advantages to Being a Pessimist?
While those who are considered pessimists do have distinct disadvantages, this does not mean they are completely hopeless. They have significant strengths in other areas. A certain type of pessimism exists, called, “defensive pessimism,” that takes hold of negative thinking. Through thinking and processing through the potential negative outcomes, the “defensive pessimist,” was found to have unexpectedly positive outcomes, increased motivation, and, in some cases, significant increases in self-esteem levels.6
Furthermore, when it came to physical health, pessimists also held advantages. While they were noted to have more concerns about getting sick during an outbreak than optimists, these individuals were more likely to engage in healthy and preventative behaviors that would reduce their chances of getting sick.
When faced with chronic illnesses, pessimists’ perspectives were more realistic of their outcomes which influenced increased treatment adherence.6 Another study found that pessimists’ underestimating their quality of life in the future tended to be more satisfied due to their realistic perspective.7
While pessimism does carry difficulties with it, it also provides some strengths towards the future as well as encouraging thought processing. This being said, it begs the question of what causes people to hold a more pessimistic perspective.
What Causes Some People to Be More Pessimistic?
While many people experience trauma, major life changes, and other transitions in their lives, there appears to be a mix of people who range from surviving and becoming more pessimistic, who get through these transitions with a bright attitude, and those who don’t appear to be affected at all. It can be frustrating for pessimists—and those who love them—as they may wonder why they are the way they are.
While we’ve discussed a spectrum, there can be other influences in people’s lives that can change their outlook on life. While genetics and basic nature can have a significant influence on perspective, it appears that family relationships, previous experiences or events, and social or environmental forces can all impact your optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life.2,3
While there’s not a lot of data on nature versus nurture in regards to pessimism specifically, experiences like significant abuse or traumatic experiences (i.e. childhood abuse, losing a friend to violent crime or suicide) can significantly change one’s belief and outlook on the world and disrupt their connections with people.2,3
Further, it may be important to note that those with more pessimism may have a lower support system, decreased resilience levels, and difficulty with using coping skills for stress management.3 Those who have a genetic history of depression or mood disorders in their direct family may be at increased risk for pessimism, as we noted above, as indicators of pessimism can be indicative of depressive emotions and cognitive distortions.
Is Pessimism More Common in Certain Populations?
Research has found a genetic component in regards to building blocks of both optimism and pessimism.2 Those who have trouble meeting one’s basic needs, a limited support system, or difficulty completing tasks may have increased feelings of helplessness, which can influence a more pessimistic perspective.2
Further, other research studies completed over time noted that children in their early school years may be observed using a pessimistic explanatory style and had an increased likelihood of experiencing depression. This likelihood only increased if they experienced childhood trauma growing up.2
While there is limited research on pessimism in specific populations, it is possible that a history of genetics especially related to depression, trauma, and limited support in obtaining success and even identity can influence a negative perspective towards themselves and the world.
When to Get Help for a Pessimistic Mindset
Pessimism can seriously impact people’s mental health, but it’s also normal for to think, “Do I really need therapy?” Consider that when pessimism begins to turn into negative thoughts or cognitive distortions, pessimism has been connected with anxiety and depression. In some instances, it has also been linked to an indicator of a mood episode relapse in both types of depression and bipolar disorders.8
Pessimism can also increase people’s stress levels which has been found to release cortisol (the stress hormone); high levels of this have been connected to killing the growth of new neurons in people’s brains, specifically in sections used in learning, memory, and emotion.8 This is dangerous for those who struggle to control their stress levels because high stress can impact the way they learn, process their emotions, and even process memories.
Further, pessimism can be an indicator of a major depressive disorder or a mood disorder, and can influence not just cognitive distortions, but catastrophizing about small events, rumination, and even suicidal thoughts. It also may impact people’s relationships as those who experience depression and other mood disorders are observed to experience irritability, “snapping,” behavior over what is perceived as a small situation, and even isolating themselves from their support system.
Pessimism does not just impact people’s mental health, but can have a negative influence on people’s overall physical health. This trait has been significantly connected to sleep difficulties, coronary and other heart diseases, and hypertension.8
How to Find a Therapist
For those who are struggling with the impact pessimism has on their lives, it may be helpful to pursue therapy. Seeing a therapist helps a person process their thoughts and explanatory style behind their world perspective. They can then identify if these processes have begun to become harmful to themselves (or those around them) and practice ways to reduce the negative impact of pessimism in their lives.
While therapy can be helpful, it may be difficult to reach out for help, especially if the process itself appears to be intensive. It may be frustrating trying to figure out the process, but choosing a therapist can be helpful in learning more about one’s self and adapting pessimistic thinking to being more effective in people’s lives. There are a lot of great online therapy options that can make the process easy, convenient, and affordable.
5 Tips for Optimistic Thinking
While therapy can be effective in helping to challenge and explore people’s thinking and world perspective, people can also choose to learn about ways to optimize their thinking, challenge their thinking, use mindfulness, and explore themselves to balance their thinking, reduce their pessimism, and increase their emotional stability.
Here are five tips for more optimistic thinking in people with a pessimistic outlook:
1. Expect the Worst, but Hope for the Best
It may be scary to think about some situations, but it does not mean one cannot prepare for these difficult moments. By allowing oneself to explore the worst things that could happen (i.e. “I could trip over a cord and knock over the microphone.”) and preparing for them (i.e. “I will watch for the cord and have them move it ahead of time to be safe.”), one can reduce the amount of perceived risk in a situation.2,3
Further, approach it with a positive perspective (i.e. “Yes, all these bad things could happen, but I can hope it will go well and will prepare for what I can.”). This perspective shares traits with defensive pessimism, but also allows one to have a positive outlook and prepare for the anxiety or difficulties with which a situation may present.
2. Try New Ways of Thinking
When one becomes comfortable with their thought process, it can be easy to rely on that and keep themselves stuck in this way of thinking. By trying to challenge a pessimistic perspective in a situation, it allows one the opportunity to challenge the norm, reduce the fear of change, and observe how it affects their emotions and thoughts. Instead of “This situation is going to suck because I don’t enjoy this,” try, “This situation may be uncomfortable, but I want to give it a try to see if I enjoy this situation more with people I like.”
3. Practice Mindfulness
When one is thinking about the bad things that could happen and may be stuck in their head, it may be difficult to remain present and aware in the current. Practice mindfulness by engaging with nature, music, or with a guided meditation, it may be easier to get in tune with one’s thoughts, to be more self-aware, and to have a more balanced perspective towards the world and one’s self. It may be helpful to take some time a few minutes a day to engage in those above and take a break.3 In fact, apps like Headspace and Calm make picking up mindfulness easy, even if you’re new to it.
4. Practice Gratitude on a Daily Basis
While this may sound cliche, engaging in gratitude activities has been proven to reduce depressive emotions and increase perspective-taking in one’s life. This looks like starting out with a positive goal or reading for the day (i.e. “I will think one happy thought a day,” or reading an article about something positive), changing the way something is phrased (“I get to check in on my health,” rather than “I have to go to the doctor today.”), and using a daily gratitude journal (i.e. writing 3-5 things a day that one appreciates).2,3
5. Engage With Optimists & Consider Volunteering
Pessimism can make it uncomfortable to reach out to people’s support system or even people who have a more positive perspective; further, it can be difficult to engage in risks and new things when one feels like things will not change.2,3
By reaching out to the people one trusts, exploring new things that allow people to help others, and engaging with people who view the world differently, it allows one to watch others and learn from this, feel accepted and appreciated by friends and family, and connect positivity and a meaning in life to new experiences.
Final Thoughts on Pessimism
Pessimism may have negative connotations, but there are strengths to this outlook on life. If it begins to severely impact your mental or physical health, reaching out to others and seeing a therapist can help you overcome and have a more positive outlook on life.
For Further Reading
- Our list of top books about depression
- Books about anxiety
- NAMI support groups