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What makes someone an optimist or a pessimist, and can you successfully develop a more optimistic life outlook?

Optimism is a highly-valued trait in people — but what exactly does it mean? Are differences between optimists and pessimists inherent, or are optimists and pessimists made rather than born? Could you be more optimistic than you thought, and what purpose do optimistic and pessimistic tendencies serve? Let's take a look!

What Exactly Are Optimism And Pessimism?

The terms "optimism" and "pessimism" are so ingrained in western cultural ideas that we rarely stop and question what they actually mean. In the most simple simple terms, optimism can be described as a tendency to be confident about  the future and to expect positive outcomes. Pessimism, to the contrary, would then be the tendency to anticipate negative outcomes and failure. 

For some reason, additional words have become attached to both these concepts. Optimists are seen as positive, happy, smiley people while pessimists are seen as grumpy negative thinkers.

I couldn't disagree more: personally, I see myself as a hopeless optimist and idealist, someone who, once a goal is set, never gives up. I am all too aware that, in order to make a dream come true, you first have to try, and that just trying can result in success beyond one's wildest imagination. That doesn't mean I'm all Pollyanna about it all the time though, and neither does it mean that I don't engage in the kind of realistic risk-assessment strategies that may actually cause other people to label me a pessimist. 

It's hardly possible to write about optimism vs pessimism without mentioning the old "glass half full and glass half empty" analogy, and that is because the analogy is actually pretty fitting. You can have a hopeful vision of half-full glasses without being all smiles about it though, and you can likewise contentedly accept that the previously full glass is now half empty without feeling depressed about it as well. Nonetheless, we have to be aware that studies investigating optimism and pessimism may all work with slightly varying definitions of these terms.

Are Optimism And Pessimism Inherent Traits?

To some extent, certainly! A fascinating and huge study that identified key genes associated with overall feelings of happiness and wellbeing as well as with depression recently came out. I'll link it right below this paragraph; it's worth reading about. 

What's more, the gene ADA2b has been found to be associated with pessimism and optimism in particular; a certain mutation of it makes people more likely to have an optimistic world outlook. 

However, we also have to remain aware that though overarching tendencies that influence someone's general life view do exist, life has a way of altering those. In a simple example, people are more likely to feel great about themselves and their prospects right at the start of running a marathon and as the finish line comes in view than they are in the middle — fatigue will, at some point, interfere with motivation, especially in the absence of the end being in sight! Likewise, things like repeated injury, long-term unemployment, bad luck in relationships, and so forth (in short: experiences that teach you that bad outcomes are very much possible) also influence how optimistic people are. 

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