It’s an age old battle: the pessimist thinks the optimist a fool; the optimist thinks the pessimist makes themself unnecessarily miserable. As a doctor, I’ve read a lot of the research into the issue. One researcher who’s spent more than 25 years looking at the topic is Martin Seligman, a psychologist and author. Seligman and his colleagues have found that optimistic people are happier than pessimists, which stands to reason! When something bad happens, optimists think of it as temporary, limited in its effect, and not entirely their fault. Pessimists do the opposite. They consider a setback to be permanent, far reaching and all their fault.
There are degrees of course, with most people well inside the extremes. The most significant difference between optimists and pessimists is how they explain setbacks to themselves. Using these definitions, researchers find that optimism contributes to good health and pessimism to illness.
In several large-scale, long term, carefully controlled studies, Seligman discovered that optimists are also more successful than pessimists. Optimistic politicians win more elections, optimistic students get better grades, optimistic athletes win more contests.
Why would this be so? Basically it’s because optimism and pessimism both tend to be self-fulfilling.
Pessimistic explanations make you feel defeated, making it less likely you’ll take constructive action. Optimistic explanations, on the other hand, make you more likely to act. If you think a setback is temporary, you’re more likely to try to do something about it, and because you take action, it is more likely to be temporary.
But pessimistic people do have one advantage: they see reality more accurately. It’s the attitude to adopt if you’re attempting something risky or dangerous. But pessimism sets up the conditions for depression to occur. A bad setback can knock a pessimist into the pit. The good news is that a pessimist can learn to be an optimist.
Pessimists can learn to be optimists, for example, seeing the temporary aspects of a setback. They can be more specific about the effects of it; they can learn to not take all the blame on themselves; they can learn to take credit for the good they do. It takes practice, however.
To the question, is the glass half-full or half-empty?
The answer is both. But you’re much better off if you think of it as half-full.
When bad happens, assume it won’t last long; look to see what isn’t affected; and don’t indulge in self-blame. When good happens, consider its effects permanent; see how much of your life is affected; and look to see how much you can take credit for.
Seligman and his colleagues, using interviews and blood tests, have found that optimists have better immune activity than pessimists, which has been confirmed by other researchers.
One major factor is that pessimistic individuals, as Seligman puts it, “get depressed more easily and more often.” When a person is depressed, certain brain hormones become depleted, creating a chain of biochemical events that end up slowing down the activity of the immune system.
Two key players in the immune system are what is known as T and NK cells.
T-cells recognise invaders (like viruses) and make more copies of themselves to kill off the invaders. A pessimist’s T-cells don’t multiply as quickly as in the optimist, allowing invaders to get the upper hand.
The NK-cells circulate in the blood, destroying whatever they identify as foreign (such as cancer cells). A pessimist’s NK-cells can identify foreign entities but do not destroy them as well as the optimist.
Optimists also look at information in more depth to find out what they can do about the risk factors. In a study by Lisa Aspinwall, at the University of Maryland, subjects read health-related information on cancer and other topics. She discovered that optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and remembered more of it.
“These are people who aren’t sitting around wishing things were different,” says Aspinwall. “They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal.”
So is your glass half-empty or half-full?
We place ourselves under great handicap by being negative and pessimistic. Optimism helps people succeed in health, business, sport, politics and most—if not all—walks of life. But too many of us are hindered by our sense of self-defeat.
Optimism is a practical, hard-headed, and realistic approach to life. So embrace optimism and change your life.