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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. 

Can You Change From A Pessimistic To An Optimist?

Humans: Born Optimists?

In addition to our unique ability to form complex social structures and cooperate with each other, risk-taking is one of those wonderful things that defines humanity. None of the technology, art, and engineering we see all around us would have been possible without that exceptional willingness to take risks — or leaps of faith, if you want to put this in more "optimistic" terms — and without the ability to get up and try again, and again, and again in the face of failure. 

We, humans, are all born optimists. Research shows, for instance, that even when we're confronted with a very high statistical likelihood of bad outcomes, such as divorce rates, the risk of dying from smoking, or odds of winning the lottery, we don't believe those stats apply to us — we believe that we, personally, are different, and that we, personally, can defy the odds. 

A healthy serving of pessimism, this shows, can also serve us very well: only by acknowledging that bad outcomes are a real possibility can be take steps to avoid them! 

Can You Change From A Pessimist Into An Optimist?

First off, should you want to? Well — research does indicate that people stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns have a higher tendency towards depression and other diagnosable mental states. Pessimism, as we saw already, can be a very useful trait in certain circumstances, and realistic risk assessment should certainly not be given up for the kind of optimism that leads us to take irresponsible risks.

However, if your pessimistic tendencies are interfering with your quality of life, you may want to give the whole optimism gig a shot.

Insofar as pessimism is genetically determined and reinforced by negative lived experiences, it is hard to escape the tendency to expect the worst. With practice, it is, however, very possible to become aware of your thought patterns in a metacognitive way. You can do so by actively taking note of whether your feelings are negative and if they are, whether that expected negativity is in line with realistic outcomes or whether you're underestimating your odds of experiencing a positive outcome. Keep a journal if you have to, or just develop the habit of reexamining your thoughts. 

In addition, though it sounds silly, many people achieve success by consciously taking note of the positive that surrounds them, in every situation. You can commit to noting the pros as well as the cons of everything you consider. You can commit to complimenting others and actively being grateful for the good in your life. You can commit to reflecting on the outcome every time something turned out better than you had expected. 

With time, new habits such as that one can certainly become ingrained, and you may find yourself having a more positive life outlook as you note that success happens just as often as failure, and that failure isn't always nearly as bad as you had feared. 
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