When we think of whether a person is an optimist or a pessimist, we often tacitly judge one as being ‘better than’ the other.
Optimistic people are generally considered to be positive, happy and well-balanced, while their counterparts, the pessimists, are viewed as negative, grumpy, and uni-dimensional in their view on life.
But is this accurate? Not really.
Generally, a person with an optimistic outlook on life will see opportunities, where a pessimist sees potential problems or obstacles. Where the pessimist thinks in terms of absolutes like ‘always’ and ‘never’, generally adopting a victim attitude, the optimist will be more open-minded to possible positive outcomes, and will expect life to turn out well. The optimist sees ‘bad things’ as random, non-targeted events that always yield a silver lining, where the pessimist might feel as though they are at the mercy of a very personal dark cloud overhead.
Studies indicate that there is a link between holding an optimistic life view and improved health, though the link is not a causal one. Optimists generally self-report as being happier and healthier, and several long-term studies have shown that dispositional optimists have better recovery outcomes following cardiovascular disease and cancers as compared to their gloomier counterparts.
But both personality types have their pros and cons. A pessimist will typically approach new situations with skepticism, searching out potential issues and problems before they arise. This can be an extremely effective coping mechanism, and may help the pessimist prepare for the unexpected, while the optimist may prefer to remain ignorant of any such possibilities and thus be blindsided by obstacles when they arise.
Optimists tend to be overly naive, and thus present likely targets for scammers and users, while a pessimist will be more likely to expect and see through such underhanded tactics. A recent study also suggests that adopting the more cautious attitude associated with pessimism may mean a longer life overall as compared to that enjoyed by optimists.
So then which is better? Is our only option to be either happy and naive, or astute but gloomy?
There might just be a middle ground that keeps us happy, healthy and better prepared for life’s challenges: realism.
The realist sits somewhere in the middle, always alert to what’s actually going on in the present, and not straying too far into the rose-colored future or the worst-case scenarios of the past. They tend to dwell in the current moment, learning from the experiences of the past but not being bound by them, and looking to the future with a positive eye but not remaining blind to possible challenges. Realism might just be the most balanced attitude to adopt in order to enjoy the benefits of both extremes while avoiding the pitfalls of each.
Maintaining a positive and hopeful attitude towards the future certainly feels better than always expecting and being fearful of the worst, and may just bring the added benefits of a healthier life, if a bit shorter. But combined with the tempering effect of a healthy dose of realism, you may just end up living happily forever!