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Mental Balance

Mental Balance

Optimism and pessimism are familiar terms, but Martin P. Seligman has given us a richness of understanding in his book, “Learned Optimism”. And what about “cheerful pessimists” and “realistic optimists”? Consider three aspects of these approaches to life. 


Sad old manA pessimist sees a bad event as colouring all aspect of life. If someone misses out on a promotion at work, for instance, a pessimist will carry this sense of failure into his marriage, his hobbies, his community activities, and so on. He (or she) will feel a failure in all parts of life. An optimist will see a bad event as affecting just one aspect of life – in this case, the job.

Conversely, a good event such as receiving a promotion will be viewed by the pessimist as affecting just the job. An optimist will carry such a success into other spheres of life and feel successful in other endeavours.


A pessimist believes bad events are permanent. In the example above, a pessimist would say such things as “I’ll never get a promotion” or “I’ll always be stuck at this level”. An optimist would see the setback as temporary and be likely to think, “I didn’t get it this time” or “I’ll be promoted in the next round”.

On the other hand, a pessimist believes that good events are temporary, as in “I got lucky this time”. An optimist sees good events as permanent and might think, “I’m always lucky”.

Explanatory style

happy old manProblems and failures have an internal explanation for the pessimist, who might say something like “I messed up and didn’t catch the ball”. An optimist who missed catching a ball would have external explanations, such as “The glove is brand new and stiff” or “The wind was blowing the wrong way”.

Good events, conversely, are externally caused according to a pessimist: “The wind blew the ball right to my hand.” An optimist sees good events as internally caused: “I’m a really good ball player”.

So what?

Seligman suggests that, although we tend to lean one way or the other, we may also feel optimistic in some situations or moments in time, and pessimistic in others. He also proposes that pessimism can play a helpful role in a group and in our lives by providing sober second thought.

The best news of all, in my view, is that pessimistic styles leading to depression (quite common according to Seligman) can be unlearned, not only in children but also in adults.

Reference: Learned Optimism by Martin P. Seligman. 2006. Vintage Books, 319 pages.


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