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Pessimism and optimism describe two categories of explanatory styles which can affect psychological outcomes. People who are pessimistic tend to expect the worst and people who are optimistic tend to expect the best. Not too surprisingly, people who have a more pessimistic explanatory style have more negative physical and mental health outcomes than people who have a more optimistic explanatory style. There seems to be a psychological benefit to viewing the world in an optimistic or positive way. If optimism bestows so many benefits, why would pessimism still persist? Are there advantages to having a pessimistic worldview as well as disadvantages to having an optimistic one?
Neural basis of Optimism or Pessimism
To better understand optimism and pessimism, it’s helpful to know what happens in our brains when we engage in one mode of thinking versus another. There is evidence that the neural processes involved in optimism and pessimism are distinct from each other. Different parts of our brains are activated depending on how we are processing information. For instance, our left brain hemisphere is more active when we are focusing on positive emotional information while the right brain hemisphere is more active when we are more attune to negative emotional information. When we get use to utilizing some parts of our brain over others, it becomes our default mode and any new behavior or skill feels much more effortful. For this reason, people may have a hard time being less pessimistic or optimistic.
Excessive optimism isn’t always the best mindset to adopt. Many people can be biased toward positive information in the face of objective information. Unrealistic optimism, or the optimism bias, is the tendency for people to believe that that they are less likely to experience a negative event, despite statistical evidence to the contrary. For instance, someone who expects to get into an elite school that has a very low rate of acceptance or someone who chooses not to get vaccinated despite its well-established efficacy is displaying unrealistic optimism. People who are unrealistically optimistic may be less prepared for life’s disappointments. Unrealistically optimistic people may have trouble moving on from perceived failure or planning well for the future. In the short term being optimistic, even if it is illogical, can buffer us from negative emotional experiences. In the long term, however, it can make us more prone to negative outcomes.
Cultural Factors Underlying Optimism
Unrealistic optimism may be a cultural phenomenon, meaning it is not a biological imperative. In studies comparing cultural differences in mindset, researchers found people of European descent displayed higher levels of unrealistic optimism than people of Asian descent. Researchers believe the reason for this finding is due to the tendency for people in western cultures to engage in self-enhancement thinking. That is, westerners are more likely to want to view themselves in a positive light, which causes them to believe they won’t experience a negative outcome. Another reason may be that people from western cultures tend to value positive emotions more so than people from eastern cultures, increasing their likelihood of engaging in strategies to maintain current levels of positive emotions. Maintaining positive feelings in the short term, however, does not ensure better mental health outcomes, particularly if it affects one’s likelihood of applying precautionary behavior (e.g. getting vaccinated, or applying to “back-up” schools).
The converse of unrealistic optimism is defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a coping strategy proposed by Nancy Cantor and Julie Norem at the University of Michigan in which individuals manage their anxiety by anticipating a negative outcome. For instance, someone may tell themselves that they won’t win an award or get into the college of their choice to protect against declines in their self-esteem. Cantor and Norem have found that a defensive pessimism strategy bestows more psychological benefits than an optimistic strategy in the face of failure. Studies have also found that being defensively pessimistic helps people manage their anxiety. Predicting a negative outcome can sometimes have the benefit of giving us a sense of control. When people accept that a negative outcome is possible, they can plan for a future that takes into consideration the negative outcome. They can also begin the process of adjusting which gives them a psychological head start compared to their optimistic counterparts. This strategy, however, is only useful in situations in which the possibility of disappointment is moderately high. Applying this strategy indiscriminately may keep someone in a permanent state of anxiety. Just as unrealistic optimism causes short term positive emotions while making one vulnerable to long term negative emotions, defensive pessimism causes short term negative emotions but mitigates the possibility of future negative emotions. When someone is in a constant state of expecting disappointment, negative emotions are maintained for a longer duration.
Finding Balance in Both
Because optimism and pessimism can be affected by social factors, it suggests that it is possible to change one’s tendency toward one or the other. Although people may have a natural tendency toward one mindset versus the other, it is still possible to train one’s brain to shift its focus of attention. Challenging ourselves to reappraise a situation after our initial appraisal will help us overcome our well-practiced cognitive habits. An optimistic and pessimistic thinking style both have its costs and benefits. If you have an overreliance on one strategy rather than applying a more flexible one, you are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, worry, and depression. Like most strategies, people likely adapted one strategy over another because of their experiences; however, just because something worked for us in the past doesn’t mean it will work for us in all situations.
Pessimism and optimism exist as separate continuums rather than as distinct categories. That is, people can certainly expect the worst but hope for the best. Most people are not entirely pessimistic or entirely optimistic. A balance of both mindsets is the most optimal approach to viewing life’s challenges.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in the month of April. Let that sink in for a moment. During a moment of perceived economic and health insecurity, 4 million people living in the U.S. decided they weren’t going back to work. Anthony Klotz, an organizational psychologist from Texas A.M University, calls this “the Great Resignation”. As described in the previous post on motivation, the pandemic created the perfect conditions for allowing people a psychological “reset” or “fresh start”. Disruptions often force people to evaluate their normal routines and consider what types of changes they want to make in their lives. Considering that people spend at least 1/3 of their adult lives working, it would make sense that people would contemplate employment related changes. But what types of job-related changes should people be making? Should you quit a lower paying job for a higher paying one? Is finding meaningful work a pipe dream? To answer these questions, it is helpful to turn to the field of positive psychology, a field focused on the science of happiness.
By now many people have heard that money can bring you happiness, but only to a certain point. Research suggests that after 75,000 dollars, more money does not bring more happiness. Just as with any research finding, this has a lot of nuances such as the cost of living where you live, how much debt you carry, etc. But the important point here is that you do not have to be in the top 10 percent of income earners to be happy with your life. The reason for this is that people quickly adapt to their situations, whether it’s a positive or negative change. This tendency is called the hedonic treadmill. Financial instability is stressful so if you are not making 75,000 dollars, finding a higher paying job will likely reduce the anxiety related to getting your basic needs met. If you meet this threshold, it may be worthwhile to consider other factors when deciding on what you want in a job.
Studies show that people who believe their work is “meaningful” are happier than people who do not believe they are engaging in meaningful work. Indeed, many people are willing to forgo more money to engage in work that they consider to be important or worthwhile. Of course, whether you are engaging in meaningful work can be highly subjective. As such, whether people see their work as meaningful is a matter of perception. David Graeber, the late anthropologist from the London School of Economics, has put forth the idea that society has structured itself in a way where over half of existing jobs are “bullshit”. His theory outlines the 5 different types of professions that he believes constitute “bullshit jobs”. Graeber was an academic, and as a former academic myself, I can understand his cynicism. Graeber’s estimate of the number of bullshit jobs might actually be too low. A recent Gallup poll found that, in fact, only 13 percent of all adults report that they find their jobs meaningful. His theory has gained a lot of traction among scholars and holds a particular appeal for people eager to define themselves outside of their jobs or careers. Graeber’s idea of “bullshit” jobs gives us permission to view our jobs as a job and not as an indication of our worth. If you do not find your work meaningful, you are far from being alone.
Some have argued that working less increases happiness. When we look at countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the happiest countries (Finland, Norway, Iceland), have the lowest hours worked annually while the unhappiest countries have the highest hours worked annually. There are other factors to consider, however, as this relationship is a relatively modest one. It is likely that the relationship is a U-shaped one. People working the least amount of hours are unhappier than people working more and people working the most amount of hours are unhappier than people working less. Working generally makes people feel productive, autonomous, and valued. Working can also meet our social needs. Working the right amount may be the key to well-being because people can reap the benefits of working without sacrificing other aspects of their lives.
It may be helpful to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when deciding whether or not to quit your job. His hierarchy is composed on the lower level of physiological needs (food and clothing), rising to safety needs (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem needs (feelings of accomplishment), and self-actualization needs (reaching one’s full potential). Maslow’s theory explains what types of things motivate us. According to his hierarchy, our more basic needs must be met before we can pursue the higher order needs. Your job is one way that you can get your needs but it’s not the only way. If you are sacrificing your belonging needs or if you can’t get your esteem needs met through your job, it may be time for a change. Sometimes that change is a different job but it can also mean changing how much you work or how you work. Change can be scary but feeling scared to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it
As the pandemic wore on in 2020, people began experiencing declining levels of motivation. Many kids, teenagers, and college students described feeling no motivation to attend class, study, or complete assignments. Adults struggled with home schooling their children or completing work assignments. Avolition, a term which describes a lack of motivation or ability to perform daily tasks, is a common symptom among people struggling with depression or anxiety. It wasn’t surprising that I heard this so often in therapy in the past year; however, it is important to distinguish between true avolition (no motivation to do anything) and a lack of motivation for specific activities. This distinction is important because the latter is easier to address than the former.
People who are not motivated for specific activities like exercising, socializing, or schoolwork should first consider what may be contributing to their lack of motivation for performing these tasks. We often experience competing motivations. Sometimes we are motivated by an activity we find rewarding and sometimes we are motivated to avoid an aversive experience. Both motivations can operate on us at once, making the motivation to avoid certain behaviors particularly powerful. Why we aren’t doing something is less important than what we are doing instead. And what we are doing is *not exercising, *not socializing, and *not doing schoolwork. All these behaviors require effort and humans evolved to expend as little effort as possible. Instead, social media, movie streaming services, and online computer games offer instant gratification with little cognitive or behavioral effort. One way we can increase our likelihood of performing a difficult task is to remove the possibility of engaging in the more rewarding task. I am often more productive when my internet is out or when I have run out of shows to stream on Netflix. It is amazing how much I accomplish simply because there is nothing else to do.
Sometimes it helps to tackle something small before we attempt the bigger task. John Perry, a professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, calls it “structured procrastination” while University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel calls it “productive procrastination”. Whatever the term, the idea is that by choosing a less aversive (but still necessary) behavior over a more aversive one, it is easier to tackle the more daunting task. How often have you found yourself cleaning or organizing instead of doing x(studying) or y(working out)? These productive procrastination tasks give us a sense of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the confidence one feels that one can accomplish a goal. People who lack self-efficacy are more likely to approach challenging tasks with dread, decreasing the likelihood that they will complete difficult tasks.
Many psychologists point out that motivation is unnecessary to begin a task. Author James Clear point out that motivation often follows an action, rather than proceeding it. Much of his description of motivation resonated with me. I often begin most tasks with the thought “I don’t want to do this right now” and yet, somehow, it gets done. As Clear points out, an object in motion stays in motion. That is, once we start doing something, it is often easier to continue than to stop. When it comes to exercise, Harvard anthropologist Daniel Leiberman points out that the “runner’s high” doesn’t even start until 20 minutes into a run. When we begin doing something, performing the task itself is self-reinforcing. We become more confident and prouder as we realize we are one step closer to accomplishing our goals.
One of the reasons declining levels of motivation was so prevalent during the pandemic is because many of our routines and schedules were disrupted. We are creatures of habit. As many scholars of motivation point out, once something is a part of our behavioral repertoire, we continue doing it out of habit rather than motivation. Changes in environment, schedules, or/and routines can disrupt our well-established habits. For some, this allowed them to consider changes in their lives that they would never have otherwise followed through with. For others, this interruption made it difficult to get things done. We also lost social motivation. Many tedious activities are more fun when we’re doing it next to or with someone. Social contagion describes the phenomenon of a behavior or attitude spreading among group members because one observes it in others. Social contagion has a powerful influence on what we choose to do.
If you were one of the many who found themselves feeling unmotivated, be kind to yourself and others. Self-compassion and empathy may help people get back on track sooner while reducing stress associated with this lack of motivation.
Welcome to my webpage! This blog will be dedicated to bringing the latest psychological research to the public. Academic papers can be unnecessarily tedious and (let's face it) boring to read through. When I initially made the decision to leave my academic position and transition into private practice, I was most excited about writing for and interfacing with people outside the ivory tower. I believe that my curiosity and openness about the human condition has strengthened my ability to connect with people from different walks of life and see their problems in unique ways.
One of the things that my clients might notice about me is that I often offer random nuggets of interesting research findings which may help them gain insight into their own problems or provide a useful strategy for coping with difficult situations. Psychology is a broad field and each specific subfield tends to stay in their lane. However, I find that by looking outside my subfield (clinical psychology), I have many more tools to draw from when working with people and their individual problems. I hope all of you find the topics featured in my blog as interesting as I do.
I am passionate about making academic research in psychology accessible to everyone. This blog will include research based information to address common concerns people have about improving their psychological functioning and fulfilling their individual potential.