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Optimist or Pessimist — Which are You?

by Louis J. Wasser

The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true. — J. Robert Oppenheimer

You’ve heard the questions thousands of times throughout your life? Which are you – an optimist or a pessimist? Do you see the glass as being half full, or half empty?

Many of us use the words optimist and pessimist loosely to describe someone’s general character. In this sense, you’re either one or the other – a glass-is-half-full person, or a glass-is-half-empty person. And in recent years, the motivational speaking movement has hijacked the notion of optimism. It’s now used too often to signify a fervor you work yourself up to, even if you have to talk to yourself in the mirror.

But there’s a more serious – even more scientific – way to talk about optimism and pessimism. When treated as a series of emotional adjustments we can exploit to deal with depression or attain our goals, optimism takes on an entirely deeper and more useful meaning.   The guru most noted for teaching us to awaken and then successfully channel our optimism is Martin Seligman, a psychologist from The University of Pennsylvania. His book Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life first published in 1990, has become a classic.

For those of us mired in a personal challenge – limited finances, loss of a job or a failed personal relationship – Seligman’s book offers a way out. It offers exercises to help move you from a pessimistic to an optimistic outlook. Before doing so though, Learned Optimism zeroes in on the three essential differences between optimism and pessimism. The pessimist thinks that a bad event will last a long time. Confronted with the same event, the optimist thinks it’s a “temporary setback.” So if you lost significant money in the stock market and you’re a pessimist, you’ll think you’re wiped out. If you’re an optimist, you’ll see yourself as having lost money that, with careful planning, can be regained.

As a pessimist, you’ll also tell yourself that your monetary loss is pervasive – that all your efforts turn to failure. But when you’re an optimist, you can limit your sense of loss to just this particular market failure. In this sense, entrepreneurs are skilled optimists. They know that you have to encounter many failures along the way on the route to one conspicuous success. The stellar example of this is Thomas Edison. With respect to his own failures he once remarked: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The third difference between the optimist and the pessimist is that the pessimist blames herself for a particular setback. The optimist, on the other hand, will attribute the cause of the same setback to other people, bad luck or circumstances beyond her control. You can appreciate the huge cost to self-esteem the pessimist has to endure by heaping all the blame on her own shoulders.

The good news is that Seligman’s little jewel of a book gives you a discipline for converting from pessimism to optimism. It even deals with the rare cases in which you should embrace a pessimistic solution even if you are an optimist. And if you’re not sure which one you are, Seligman gives you a test to help you find out.

Go ahead and take the test. You might just surprise yourself.

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