Whether you realise it or not, the odds are that you skew at least slightly more towards optimism than pessimism.
One of the peculiarities of human beings is that we can be optimistic without even realising it, even those of us who identify as pessimists. That is not to deny that there are many among us who do skew more towards pessimism, but that their numbers might be fewer than we – and they – realise, particularly the further along the continuum we move, i.e., so-called ‘hardcore’ pessimists, those among us for whom no silver lining comes without a cloud.
When I use the word ‘continuum’ here, I do not do so loosely. Optimism can be looked at in many different ways in psychology, but one of the dominant approaches is to frame the discussion in terms of individual differences. Charles Carver and Michael Scheier are synonymous with this perspective, having developed the idea of ‘dispositional optimism’, which refers to individual tendencies to expect positive outcomes relative to negative outcomes in the future. For Carver and Scheier, a key marker of optimism is the global expectation that good things/events/occurrences will far outweigh their negative counterparts in the future. However, they don’t view optimism and pessimism as separate constructs. Instead, they maintain that we all reside somewhere on a single continuum, with extreme optimists at one end and extreme pessimists at the other, while the great bulk of us will tend to cluster around the middle, with the majority tending to be on the positive side of neutral, even if only slightly in many instances.
This was not always a popular view in psychology. Once, psychologists emphasised the idea that mental health was predicated upon the ability to see the world as it is, i.e., the accurate perception of reality. This created a somewhat problematic backdrop for optimism, given that only the most modest expectations for the future could be regarded as realistic. Anything more ambitious could quite easily appear ‘removed’ from reality and anyone voicing such sentiments risked being labelled as deluded or somehow in denial.
However, in the 1960s and 1970s, a series of research breakthroughs led to the discarding of the previous consensus, as it was discovered that humans tend not to think in strictly realistic or accurate ways. Specifically, studies were undertaken which found that we tend to be selectively positive with regard to language, memory, and thought. Arising from that, a new view emerged; far from the idea that mental health necessitated an objective mind, it was proposed that a bias towards positivity was a key component of psychological health.
Despite this key breakthrough having occurred several decades ago, optimism, to an extent, still gets a bad rap in the court of public opinion in this country, though perhaps that tendency has become less pronounced in recent years and, presumably (hopefully!), we will continue to see movement in a more positive direction in the future. Quite why an outdated view on optimism has persisted in the public consciousness is something of a puzzle. There may be several explanations, but whatever the answer, traditionally, optimism has been greeted with suspicion and even scorn in some circles here. Even the intelligence of people voicing optimistic sentiments is sometimes called into question – as if pessimism was a marker of intellectual superiority, when there is little evidence to support such a contention. Sceptics on the merits of an optimistic outlook may also point to what they see as a reluctance or refusal by optimists to “face reality” or “deal with the world as it is”. In so doing, they preach realism, but may in fact be giving voice to pessimism.
One of the key myths around criticism of optimism is that those who express an optimistic outlook turn away from life’s problems and somehow stick their head in the sand or look away from unpleasant truths. No doubt there are individuals who exhibit such tendencies, but there is ample research which points in a different direction, highlighting the adaptive value of optimism.
Far from ignoring or blinding themselves to problems and obstacles, an optimistic outlook tends to be associated with ‘approach strategies’, in which individuals will engage constructively with the issue at hand, with a view towards finding a successful solution. In fact, it seems that it is actually those more pessimistic individuals who turn away when presented with an obstacle in life. This may go against the oft repeated sentiments we hear in daily life, but if you take a step back and consider the respective scenarios, these tendencies make intuitive sense. Why wouldn’t someone who was more optimistic tackle problems in a constructive manner? Their optimism would most likely equip them with the belief that they can overcome the issue at hand. The opposite may also be true, i.e., someone who skews towards pessimism may doubt their ability to overcome an obstacle or solve a problem and may therefore shy away from facing up to it.
Research evidence suggests that the trend among people is to exhibit an optimistic bias. It is not necessarily rational, and it can manifest in negative ways, but it is also the case that this tendency has served us well as a species, and the case can be made that there is an evolutionary angle at work here too.
We will pick on this and other optimism-related points in the next entry.