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Optimism vs Pessimism Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 1st, 2021


Attitudes towards life and the world around have a great impact on emotional and psychological state of a person, his/her life goals and well-being. Optimism and pessimism are two important characteristics of an outlook on life and environment shared by every person. Optimistic and pessimistic views of people are influenced by life expectations and life circumstances, childhood experience and social position, etc. The more important a goal is to someone, the greater is its value within the person’s motivation. Without having a goal that matters, people have no reason to act. Optimists and pessimists differ in several ways that have a big impact on their lives.

Optimism and Pessimism Defined

Traditional definitions of optimism and pessimism rest on people’s expectations for the future. Scientific approaches to these constructs also rest on expectations for the future. This grounding in expectancies links the concepts of optimism and pessimism to a long tradition of expectancy-value models of motivation (Aspinwall & Brunhart 1996) The result of this is that the optimism construct, though having roots in folk wisdom, is also firmly grounded in decades of theory and research on human motives and how they are expressed in behavior. “Dispositional optimism refers to generalized outcome expectancies that good things, rather than bad things, will happen; pessimism refers to the tendency to expect negative outcomes in the future” (MacArthur & MacArthur 1999). Optimists are people who expect good things to happen to them; pessimists are people who expect bad things to happen to them. Selingman (1978) explains that In this regard, the optimistic attributional style is the pattern of external, variable, and specific attributions for failures instead of internal, stable, and global attributes that were the focus in the earlier helplessness model. Implicit in this theory is the importance placed on negative outcomes, and there is a goal-related quality in that optimistic people are attempting to distance themselves from negative outcomes. In hope theory, however, the focus is on reaching desired future positive goal-related outcomes, with explicit emphases on the agency and pathways thoughts about the desired goal. In both theories, the outcome must be of high importance, although this is emphasized more in hope theory (Lesko, 2005).

Impact of Expectations on Optimism and Pessimism

Expectancies are pivotal in theories of optimism, but there are at least two ways to think about expectancies and how to measure them (Lesko 2005). One approach measures expectancies directly, asking people to indicate the extent to which they believe that their future outcomes will be good or bad. Expectancies that are generalized— expectancies that pertain more or less to the person’s entire life space—are what we mean when we use the terms optimism and pessimism. Another approach to optimism relies on the assumption that people’s expectancies for the future derive from their view of the causes of events in the past (Seligman, 1991 cited Lesko, 2005). If explanations for past failures focus on causes that are stable, the person’s expectancy for the future in the same domain will be for bad outcomes because the cause is seen as relatively permanent and thus likely to remain in force. If attributions for past failures focus on causes that are unstable, then the outlook for the future may be brighter because the cause may no longer be in force. If explanations for past failures are global (apply across aspects of life), the expectancy for the future across many domains will be for bad outcomes because the causal forces are at work everywhere. If the explanations are specific, the outlook for other areas of life may be brighter because the causes do not apply there (Meyers, 2006).

Goals are states or actions that people view as either desirable or undesirable. People try to fit their behaviors, indeed, fit their very selves, to what they see as desirable, and they try to keep away from what they see as undesirable. The second conceptual element in expectancy-value theories is expectancy, a sense of confidence or doubt about the attainability of the goal value (Meyers, 2006). If the person lacks confidence, again there will be no action. That’s why a lack of confidence is sometimes referred to as “crippling doubt.” Doubt can impair effort before the action begins or while it is ongoing. Only if people have enough confidence will they move into action and continue their efforts (Lesko, 2005).

Impact of Optimism and Pessimism on Life Goals and Well-Being

Optimism not only has a positive effect on the psychological well-being of people with medical problems but also influences well-being among caregivers. This conclusion was supported in a project that studied a group of cancer patients and their caregivers. Caregivers’ optimism related to lower symptoms of depression, less impact of caregiving on physical health, and less impact on caregivers’ daily schedules. Similar results have been found in research on caregiver spouses of Alzheimer’s patients (Lesko, 2005). Although much of the evidence for the relationship between optimism and psychological well-being comes from samples encountering serious adversity, less extreme events have been examined in other studies (Aspinwall & Brunhart, 1996). For example, the start of college is a difficult and stressful time, and researchers have examined students making their adjustment to their first semester of college. Optimism, self-esteem, and other variables were assessed when the students first arrived on campus

Theory (Lesko, 2005) suggests that pessimists are less likely to make efforts to ensure their well-being. There is, in fact, evidence that pessimists engage in behaviors that reflect a tendency to give up. Some of these behaviors have adverse consequences for wellbeing. Some even have deadly consequences. “To the extent that generalized expectancies are negative, internal, and global, bad health and mental health consequences will follow, a response style termed “pessimistic explanatory style” (MacArthur & MacArthur, 1999). Various forms of substance abuse can be seen as reflecting a giving-up tendency. Substance abuse in general, and excessive alcohol consumption in particular, often is seen as an escape from problems. If so, it follows that pessimists should be more vulnerable than optimists to engaging in this pattern of maladaptive behavior. A sizable body of evidence indicates that pessimism can lead people into self-defeating patterns. The study by Ammar et al (2000) found that: “patients who possess a tendency toward either high pessimism or high emotion-focused coping are at a high health risk emanating from both high distress and a slow rehabilitation process’. The result can be less persistence, more avoidance coping, health-damaging behavior, and potentially even an impulse to escape from life altogether. With no confidence about the future, there may be nothing left to sustain life. Optimism may influence the settings that people choose as well as what they do in these settings. Just as important, settings differ in the degree to which they allow positive characteristics to develop and be deployed (Meyers, 2006).

Threats of Optimism and Benefits of Pessimism

Several theorists have suggested the possibility that such situations do exist, that optimism may be potentially damaging (Lesko 2005) For example, too much optimism might lead people to ignore a threat until it is too late or might lead people to overestimate their ability to deal with an adverse situation, resulting in poorer coping. The idea that optimists may fail to protect themselves against threats is one way in which optimism might work against a person. Another possibility is that the optimist’s worldview might be more vulnerable than that of a pessimist to the shattering impact of a traumatic event. After all, adversity confirms the pessimist’s worldview. Although the development of positive expectations is an important goal of such therapies, it also is important to recognize that it can be counterproductive to try to substitute an unquestioning optimism for an existing doubt. Sometimes people are pessimistic because they have unrealistically high aspirations for themselves. They demand perfection, hardly ever see it, and develop resulting doubts about their adequacy. This tendency must be countered by establishing realistic goals and identifying which situations must be accepted rather than changed.


Expectations for the future have an important impact on how people respond in times of adversity or challenge. Expectancies influence the way in which people confront these situations, and they influence the success with which people deal with them. We have yet to see clear evidence of a case in which having positive expectations for one’s future is detrimental. Many questions remain unanswered: for example, about the precise mechanism by which optimism influences subjective well-being, and about potential pathways by which optimism may influence physical well-being. But people themselves are optimistic about the future of work in this area, optimistic that research will continue to reveal the paths by which positive thinking works to people’s benefit.


  1. Ammar, R., Ben-Zur, H., Rappaport, B., Uretzky, B.G. (2000). Coping Strategies, Life Style Changes and Pessimism after Open-Heart Surgery. Health and Social Work, 25 (3), 201.
  2. Aspinwall, L. G., & Brunhart, S. N. (1996). Distinguishing optimism from denial: Optimistic beliefs predict attention to health threats. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, n/a.
  3. Lesko, W.A. (2005). Readings in Social Psychology: General, Classic, and Contemporary Selections. Allyn & Bacon; 6th edition.
  4. MacArthur, J.D., MacArthur, C.T. (1999). Optimism/Pessimism. Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.
  5. Meyers, D.G. (2006). Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages. Allyn & Bacon.
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