Is your glass half full or is it half empty? I am sure you have heard that saying before. But what the heck does it really mean and does it matter?

The optimist sees opportunity in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity. – Winston Churchill

My post today was inspired by this quote which was at the top of my 5 minute journal this morning. Let’s start by defining what it means to be an optimist or a pessimist.

Optimistic (op-tuhmis-tik) – Reflecting a favorable view of events and conditions and the expectation of a positive outcome .

Pessimistic (pes-uhmis-tik) – The tendency to expect only bad outcomes.

To put it simply, do you have a tendency to look for the positive in events, or do you focus on the negative?  

Think about taking a picture of something or someone. Your photo is the result of only one angle. There are many angles from which you could have taken the same photograph, however the angle you choose will have a drastic impact of what you see. Our perspective about lives events isn’t much different.

Ten people could have a similar event occur, or even witness the same event and all walk away with slightly different meanings or perspectives of what just happened. For some a “breakup” means sadness or even devastation – for others freedom or opportunity. Time can also change your perspective regarding that very same event. The loss of a job that was a calamity at the time, allowed you to start the business of your dreams.

If we dive a little deeper, Dr. Martin Seligman who is the Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and was President of the American Psychological Association offers further explanation.

In his book Learned Optimism, Dr. Seligman breaks our thought process down to three categories.

Permanence – Do we believe that bad events are temporary or permanent?

Pervasiveness – Is an event specific to a particular area and compartmentalized or is it translated globally to our entire life?

Personalization – Are the causes due to external circumstance or are they internally caused by us?

Pessimists tend to believe bad events will last a long time (permanence), will undermine everything they do (pervasiveness) and are their own fault (personalization). As a result, they give up more easily and get depressed more often.

When optimists are confronted with the same obstacles, they tend to believe defeat is a temporary setback, confined to this one case and is more a result of external circumstances or other factors such as bad luck.

According to Seligman, the way your mother talked about the world when you were a child had a marked influence. The mother’s level of optimism and the child’s level were very similar for both sons and daughters.

It is also widely believed that we all have a certain “set-point” for optimism. Shawn Anchor suggested in his book The Happiness Advantage that the set point could be as high as 50%, with your external circumstances accounting for 10% and the way in which you view the world making up the other 40%. Remember that picture?

Does it matter what filter we use to view our world?

The Benefits of Optimism

There are many benefits of having an overall optimist outlook. Research and studies have shown that optimism is often associated with better health and a longer life. Optimists also tend to be less affected by defeat and perceive it as a challenge and try harder. As a result they do better in school, work, regularly exceed predictions of aptitude tests and are healthier

As I discussed in a previous post, your brain runs optimally in most situations at a positive level versus negative or even a neutral state.

So should we just force ourselves to think positive all the time and live in La-La Land? Of course not….

In some situations, negative thinking offers a clear advantage.

If predicting potential pitfalls or diagnosing problems is a key to success, you don’t want to be overly optimistic. One study of 207 entrepreneurs found a negative correlation between entrepreneur’s optimism levels and success of their new venture.

Other studies have shown that optimistic gamblers lose more money. “Come on, I feel it, I know it will hit on red this time!”

Dr. Seligman also says in his book that the best lawyers are pessimists.  His explanation:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers… The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities.

So what are we to do?

Like most things in life, things are rarely black and white and balance is incredibly important.

William Ward had a great quote that I think is appropriate.

“The pessimist complains about the wind.”

“The optimist expects it to change”

“The realist adjusts the sails”

There is overwhelming evidence that optimism wins the day in the majority of situations. Your ability to view negative events as temporarily, contained to one area of your life and changeable will make you happier, healthier and quite frankly more fun to be around!

It will also help you get up when you are knocked down and persevere through adversity, something that is critical to success in any endeavor.

That doesn’t mean you bury your head and the sand and assume you will win the lottery tomorrow. Looking for threats and possible pitfalls has its advantages and is necessary in the right situations.

From a natural and conditioned set point, I have the pessimism role down pretty well. That tends to come naturally if I am not careful. I have no problem projecting a small failure into the future, or taking it personally which keeps me stuck in the mud.

In order to bring me into balance and set me up for optimal performance I need to condition myself for optimism and override my thinking when I notice it heads down a path that is not helpful. I have found this necessary with many of my coaching clients as well.

So which is it, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Your partner in success,

Josh Paulsen