Chapter 34 of the book Self-Help Stuff That Works

by Adam Khan:

IT'S AN AGE-OLD BATTLE. Pessimists think optimists are foolish, optimists think pessimists make themselves unnecessarily miserable. A lot of research has been done on this issue in the last 30 years. Have we answered the question yet? Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic people are happier than pessimists. When something bad happens, optimists think of it as temporary, limited in its effect, and not entirely their fault. Pessimists do the opposite. They consider the setback to be permanent, far-reaching and all their fault. There are varying degrees of this, of course; it's not black or white. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes.

The main difference between optimists and pessimists is how they explain setbacks to themselves. Using these definitions, researchers find that optimism contributes to good health and pessimism contributes to illness.

In several large-scale, long-term, carefully controlled experiments, Seligman discovered that optimists are more successful than pessimists - optimistic politicians win more elections, optimistic students get better grades, optimistic athletes win more contests, optimistic salespeople make more money.

Why would this be so? Because optimism and pessimism both tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think a setback is permanent, why would you try to change it? Pessimistic explanations tend to make you feel defeated - making you less likely to take constructive action. Optimistic explanations, on the other hand, make you more likely to act. If you think the setback is only temporary, you're apt to try to do something about it, and because you take action, you make it temporary. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pessimistic people do have one advantage: They see reality more accurately. It's the attitude to adopt if you're attempting something risky or dangerous. But be careful because one of the biggest counts against pessimism is that it causes depression. More accurately, pessimism sets up the condition for depression to occur. One bad setback can knock a pessimist into the pit.


Since depression costs this country more per year than heart disease (the nation's number one killer), pessimism has serious side effects. It's kind of a booby-prize for a pessimist to be able to say, "Yes, but I see reality more accurately."

The good news is that a pessimist can learn to be an optimist. Pessimists can learn to see the temporary aspects of setbacks. They can be more specific about the effects of it, they can learn to not take all the blame and they can learn to take credit for the good they do. All it takes is practice. Optimism is simply a way of thinking about good and bad; it's a cognitive skill anyone can learn.

So, what about the age-old conflict? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Our best answer is that the glass is both half-full and half-empty, but you're much better off if you think of it as half-full.

When bad happens:
Assume it won't last long, look to see what isn't affected, and don't indulge in self-blame.


When good happens:
Consider its effects permanent, see how much of your life is affected, and look to see how much you can take credit for.

Optimism is Healthy

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 1). Optimism, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 6 from

Last Updated: March 30, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info