Optimism and pessimism: #1

Three Characteristics of Pessimistic Thinking

Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, identifies three characteristics of pessimistic thinking:    

The first is permanence. In other words, regarding temporary, passing events as being lasting and unchanging states. For example, your boss chews you out about something. You react by thinking, “I really hate him,” and you go on from there to think of all the things you don’t like about your boss. Your boss’s reprimand is a single, passing event, but you turn it into something permanent by thinking, “He’s always like that,” and “No matter what I do, he’ll never change.” On the other hand, the optimistic person thinks, “The boss is in a bad mood today. Something must have happened,” limiting the event to that day and not extending it any further.    

The second characteristic is pervasiveness. When one thing goes wrong, a pessimist thinks that everything is bad. This is like thinking that you’re not good at any school subject just because you have a hard time with math. When a person with this attitude is scolded for one mistake, they think, “I’m no good. I can’t do anything,” and become depressed. Instead of simply thinking that all that has to be done is to fix the mistake, individuals like this think that they have been completely rejected as a person. One black mark grows into a huge black cloud in their mind. They become more intimidated and make more mistakes, creating a vicious circle.   

Let’s say you have been rejected in love. You feel bad—so bad that you start thinking, “I’ll never trust anyone again,” and “I’m unlovable.” What actually happened was that things simply didn’t work out between the two of you, but you don’t leave it at that. You lose all self-confidence and keep dwelling on your pain, so that you become dull and lifeless. To compound the situation, many people in this situation keep repeating negative inner dialogues with themselves, brooding endlessly.    

The third characteristic of pessimism is personalization. That is, thinking that anything bad that happens is your fault and anything good must be credited to other people or to chance. For example, when an optimistic athlete or team loses a game, they think, “You win some, you lose some,” or “The other team was really on top of their game today.” They don’t blame the loss on themselves. But when a pessimistic athlete or team loses, they think, “I didn’t make enough concentrated effort,” or “I let so many good ones go by,” or “With hitting like that, we’ll never win.” When two teams are of the same level in ability, the optimistic team is more likely to win, explains Dr. Seligman.  

Of course, we can’t lose sight of reality and, out of extreme optimism, blame every bad thing on others. However, the negative aspect of pessimism is that it causes us to beat ourselves up needlessly.


Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), p. 101.

to be continued: how to be optimistic!