Living on the Sunny Side

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Be Happy

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin
Have you heard the joke about the optimist and the pessimist? The optimist says cheerfully, "This is the best of all possible worlds." And the pessimist says glumly, "I agree."

Which camp do you fall into? And how will this affect your chances of success?

Research suggests that optimists do better in school, sports, sales, and politics. For one study, published in 1988 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers surveyed 99 men at age 25 and rated their degree of optimism about life in general. Doctors then examined these men at age 65 and found that the optimists had survived middle age in better health.

Pessimists tend to believe that bad times will last forever and that a single mistake will affect all areas of their lives. As a result, they often get depressed and give up too soon.

Yet optimism can get you in trouble, too, says Andrew Shatte, PhD, of Adaptive Learning Systems in King of Prussia, Pa. Optimists tend to shift the blame to others when things don't work out. They can also be aggressive and impulsive, taking unnecessary risks.

"Neither extreme is healthy," says Shatte. The most effective people combine the can-do enthusiasm of the optimist with the early warning system of the pessimist. The trick is learning when and how to adjust your point of view.

Advice for the Perennial Optimist

You're good at motivating people and getting support for new ideas -- but remember that being a cheerleader has its pitfalls.

  • You tend to minimize your challenges, so take time to listen to your critics.
  • When you make a mistake, don't gloss over it. Stop and think how this behavior could affect other areas of your life.
  • When things go wrong, you probably start finding fault with others. Practice taking responsibility for your share of the problem. Above all, stop finger-pointing or blaming people.

Advice for the Perennial Pessimist

You're good at analyzing problems and finding out what isn't going to work -- but you will be paralyzed if you take this tack too far.

  • When something bad happens, don't automatically assume that it's your fault. Make a list of other contributing factors.
  • Don't assume that one mistake is going to cost you everything -- or that you can't recover.
  • Focus on the things that you can change -- and practice coming up with fresh alternatives.

Valerie Andrews has written for Vogue, Esquire, People, Intuition, and HealthScout. She lives in Greenbrae, Calif.

Originally published Sept. 20, 2000.
Updated Feb. 20, 2002.

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