Optimism has long been regarded as a key component towards a happier, flourishing life. Most scales used to measure flourishing take levels of optimism into account, whilst Martin Seligman himself argues that pessimism and depression are closely linked. There have been many studies which prove the long-lasting benefits of optimism and many articles, papers and books have been written attempting to help others live optimistic lives. However, whilst most scholars are now careful to acknowledge the disadvantages of misguided or over-used optimism, they still fail to acknowledge the potential positive outcomes associated with pessimism used in the right place at the right time. In a recent attempt to cultivate more optimism in my own life I came to realise that there are strategies which can be used to prepare for upcoming events which can often go against the pre-conceived notion of an optimistic life but which can often have the same benefits.

Explanatory styles

Understanding your explanatory style is important when trying to determine whether one is more optimistic or pessimistic in outlook. An explanatory style is the way in which a person explains events both past and present. Someone with a pessimistic explanatory style views negative events as permanent and caused by internal factors whilst viewing positive events as temporary and caused by external factors. Someone with an optimistic explanatory style, however, will view situations in the opposite manner believing negative events to be temporary and out with their control whilst positive events are due to their own experiences and are more permanent. However, research has suggested that many of us will actually use different strategies to prepare for and explain events and that these often do not fit neatly into the optimism/pessimism boxes we understand so well.

Optimism strategies

During some recent personal research, I discovered that the strategy I use most often when preparing for an event is Defensive Pessimism which Ilona Boniwell describes as; ‘a cognitive strategy to set low expectations for upcoming performance’. Defensive pessimists often spend a lot of time preparing for everything that could possibly go wrong during an upcoming event, meaning that, more often than not, they will avoid anything going wrong and perform well. Interestingly, research has also shown that they also prepare for everything that can possibly go right in an upcoming event, making this strategy the closest to realism.

The opposite of defensive pessimism is Strategic Optimism, which involves not imagining an upcoming event at all, either positively or negatively. This does not mean that those who use Strategic Optimism do not prepare for an event but they avoid thinking about the event itself and will often use distraction techniques to do this.

Research into the different optimism strategies suggests that someone who is used to using one optimism strategy will struggle when attempting to use a different one, even if that different strategy is to simply ‘be more optimistic’ as we are so often encouraged to be. However, Julia Norem, a key researcher in the field, has argued that whilst one strategy may work in a particular situation this does not mean that it will always work in another. Continuously adapting one’s optimism strategies in different situations may be the best way to face the world with a realistic attitude, which may be better than optimism when it comes to happiness and resilience.

Why is it important?

Explanatory style influences the way we explain the world around us, yet both optimism and pessimism are too rigid and definitive for the ever-changing modern world. Just because we can explain one situation in a certain way does not mean that we should explain the next one in the same manner. Furthermore, by constantly striving to view events in an optimistic light and encouraging others to do the same we are running the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture and creating a world where we are unrealistically optimistic. Understanding different optimistic strategies and exploring the best time and place to use them will help us to question the explanatory style we are using and ultimately help us to better understand the world that we live in.

Whilst pure pessimism is just as bad as pure optimism can be, if not worse, ignoring intuitive negative thoughts and feelings can create unrealistic expectations and will be damaging in the long run. We, as a society, need to move away from our hatred of pessimism and out love of optimism towards a more realistic outlook in life and a greater understanding and use of optimism strategies may be the first step towards achieving this.

About the Author: Katherine Halliday lives in Dundee in Scotland and works in student support at the University of St Andrews. Katherine is currently undertaking the MAPP course at Bucks New University and is loving every minute of it.


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

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