We’re all probably familiar with some optimists and pessimists in our lives. Optimists are the ones with the “glass is always half-full” perspective. Nothing ever gets them down — even when things are falling apart.
Pessimists, on the other hand, are the ones who tend to see the negatives in current and future situations. And life just always seems to be miserable and hopeless to them.
In reality, most of us have a mixture of optimism and pessimism in us. But based on my description, you can probably see yourself being more inclined to one way of thinking or the other.
The big question that most people have about optimism and pessimism is — which is better?
Well, in terms of psychological, emotional, and physical health, the research seems pretty consistent. Many studies show that people who are more optimistic report better mental and physical wellbeing.
Researchers have found that optimism helps improve mental health outcomes in people with psychological disorders. And within the wider population, optimistic people are happier, more satisfied with life, and are less likely to experience burnout.
A big part of why optimism is better for our psychological wellbeing is because it encourages us to use effective mental coping strategies when things get tough.
Instead of “disengaging” when faced with a stressful event (like ignoring the problem or blaming), optimists are more likely to use engaging strategies (like focusing on ways to solve the issue).
So optimism isn’t just psychologically beneficial because it leads to a happier state of mind. It’s actually productive because it nudges you to focus on actually solving the problem.
What’s even more interesting about optimism and pessimism is how it can affect our physical health. Many studies have looked at how optimism and pessimism affect people with chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease. And those who are optimistic generally have better long-term health outcomes.
The same can also be said for people without any major illnesses. One study found that optimists have better immune responses to vaccinations. They’re also more likely to engage in positive health behaviours like maintaining a balanced diet, moderating alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy social network, and getting enough sleep. This means optimism doesn’t just directly impact our physiology in a positive way. It also indirectly improves our health through our behaviours.
This isn’t to say that viewing situations from a pessimistic lens has no practical benefits. It helps us to anticipate difficulties and may even prevent us from entering situations that could be unhelpful for us. But the general consensus is that when optimism is practiced in a balanced way, it’s better for our wellbeing.
Let’s take the example of returning to your physical office after lockdown. Pessimism can lead us to focus on the negatives of the situation — like dreading the hassle of changing routines again and adjusting to new protocols.
While it’s helpful to anticipate future challenges, getting stuck on these thoughts for too long can become unproductive for our wellbeing. It makes shaking off the lousy feelings a lot harder. And we might even engage in unhealthy behaviours (like comfort eating) to temporarily ease the discomfort we feel.
It also becomes a negative cycle because we may start feeling bad about comfort eating, and this sends us further down the spiral of pessimistic thinking.
If we chose to think optimistically, we would proactively seek the good in the situation. Perhaps there are things you can look forward to — maybe you’d be more productive in the office environment, or it’d be good to catch up with colleagues in-person again. And even if problems related to the transition do come up, optimistic thinking helps us solve problems in more constructive ways.
If you feel that your tendency towards pessimism is getting in the way of your wellbeing, there are simple ways that you can shape your thoughts to be more optimistic.
First, start becoming more aware of unhealthy pessimistic thoughts by “catching” yourself in these moments. You can simply tell yourself, “Seems like I’m starting to think negatively here”. After that, try reframing your thoughts in more positive ways by imagining what an optimistic person would say. You could also try simple exercises like writing down 3 things you’re thankful for each day or keep a positive statement that you like on your desk.
To sum up, balanced optimism is generally better for our wellbeing. And the great thing is, our thinking habits aren’t static. We can all cultivate a sense of optimism with some simple mind-training techniques.