Pessimist or Realistic Optimist?

 Nov 29, 2016

Do you ever find yourself being referred to as an optimist and somehow that doesn’t sound like a compliment? Or you find yourself surrounded by pessimists and they tell you they’re just being realistic?

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and a well-known researcher in the field of optimism, optimism or pessimism are determined by the way you explain the events that happen to you. On the one end of the continuum, lies pessimism, while at the other end lies optimism; at the midpoint we find realism.

PESSIMISTS explain events that happen to them as unchangeable, which causes them to feel helpless.

Secondly, they tend to catastrophise and generalise about things, where “everything” and “always” are given as the cause of the problem. So it will be that the new staff member is unable to do “anything”, and “always” gets it wrong. Chances are, there are some areas that are not up to speed but probably a good few that are. Similarly, there’s “everything” wrong with a report, whereas it may just be one aspect, such as the layout.

Thirdly, pessimists see themselves at the heart of every negative experience and are “always” to blame and “everything” is always going wrong in their lives. They explain away good situations as “luck” and not likely to be repeated.

OPTIMISTS: In the Huffington Post, (Published: 08/24/2013) Tia Ghose wrote that Optimists fall into two camps: the idealists and the realists.

Idealists seek what could be; a future goal but sometimes, this idealism is not realistic. An example of idealism may be someone trying to calculate how long it will take to work. Because on one occasion they got to work in a record 30 minutes, they ignore the overwhelming number of times it’s taken them 40 minutes. They find it hard to be realistic, because they have an inbuilt best-case-scenario mindset.

Realistic optimists tend to believe that they have more self-control, as well as control over their interpersonal relationships. “Every time they face an issue or a challenge or a problem, they won’t say ‘I have no choice and this is the only thing I can do.’ They will be creative, they will have a plan A, plan B and plan C”. They tend to view the future positively while being pragmatic about any difficulties or problems in the present. In a nutshell, they explain events just as they are.

Realistic optimists, according to Heidi Grant HBR May 2011, believe that they have to “make success happen – through effort, careful planning, persistence and choosing the right strategies.” They also have to think about hurdles and challenges and what they will need to do in order to overcome them.

Realistic optimists are also associated with being extrovert and cheerful. They are also thought to be more resilient in the face of adversity.


Well besides attending our two-day Emotional Intelligence course, you could try to:

  • Be more engaged. That way you distract yourself from pondering and thinking negatively about all the little things that bug you. So you could play some music, or talk to someone, or take a quick walk outside.
  • Stop blaming yourself. When you mess up with dinner for example, don’t say “I’m a bad cook” but rather, “I’ll have to keep a closer eye on the recipe” or even “I’ll have to try another recipe”. Often, setting a small goal and achieving it, such as trying another recipe the next meal, can help put your thoughts into better perspective.
  • Fake it, till you make it. The idea of perseverance is very typical of optimists who always focus on trying to problem solve. So try to behave like an optimist even if it’s the last thing you feel like; studies (Wake Forest University) show that it will improve your overall happiness.
  • Make friends with an optimist. Surrounding yourself with people who are cheerful and bounce ideas of more optimistic co-workers

And remember:

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
- Winston S. Churchill

For more information, take a look at our Professional Development training courses.

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About the Author:

Fee Hosking  

With over 24 years experience as a trainer, Fee is one of our most senior Professional Development trainers at New Horizons Sydney. With a professional background as a management consultant in the South African manufacturing industry, Fee brings credibility, experience and authenticity to all of the subjects that she trains. She has the ability to engage professionals from the junior to the senior level. Bringing great energy to the classroom, Fee ensures that the learning experience for all who attend is an enjoyable one, which in turn makes it a truly impactful one.

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