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The Optimist vs. The Pessimist

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Everyone knows the proverbial question: Is the glass of water half full or half empty? The optimist would state that it’s half full and probably predict that it will soon be full again. The pessimist would state that it’s half empty and is in danger of soon becoming empty. Which one is right?

A mother and father have a three year old little girl. When she gets a sore throat the father becomes alarmed and worries that she has strep throat. He fears that it could turn into scarlet fever resulting in damage to her heart. On the other hand, the mother is sure she has a bad cold and be just fine. She tell herself that the little girl has no fever but is sneezing. She is sure she will get over it. However, in order to relieve her husband’s anxiety, the mother takes the girl to the pediatrician who reports that this is a cold virus and nothing to worry about. When she lets her husband know about this he does feel better but continues to worry. Was he right to worry?

The optimist has a different way of looking at life as compared to the pessimist. The optimist believes that problems are temporary and will get better. By contrast, the pessimist is convinced that the problem is here to say and can only get worse. In the cases above, both optimist and pessimist believe that their view of the glass is correct. The pessimist would predict that, once the glass is empty, there will be no water available to replace it.

In the second case, the father worries himself unnecessarily, even after the doctors examination of the little girl. His personality is such that he sees only clouds and rarely notices sunny days.

According to psychologist Martin Seligman, optimists and pessimists have opposite ways of thinking. As a result, the pessimist are prone to depression. In addition, they experience more health problems and do not live as long as the optimists.

Seligman states that it is the amount of pessimism or optimism that really matters. For example, there is an important place for both optimists and pessimists. Unchecked optimism can be unrealistic and result in lots of trouble. An overly optimistic person may make unrealistic plans that they do not have time for and cannot afford. The pessimist helps bring reality to the situation by reminding everyone of the limited possibilities of certain plans that may not be practical and could even be dangerous. Too much pessimism leads to depression.

Does this mean that the pessimist is hopeless? To believe this is to be pessimistic. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) addresses the automatic thoughts that drive the pessimistic and causes them to feel depressed. If someone has a mild depression then Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, is a good self help way to go about handling unrealistically pessimistic ways of thinking. The book is filled with exercises with that in mind. As an optimistic I know the book helps. There is no reason to be permanently caught in depression and pessimism.

Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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