Optimistic vs Pessimistic Thinking

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Do you always find the good in any situation? If so, you might be an optimistic thinker. In this lesson, we will discuss optimistic thinking, pessimistic thinking, and determine which method of thinking is best.


Jayla and Tim are two close friends who do everything together. They even have all of the same classes. Jayla and Tim's least favorite subject is math. So the duo was completely caught off guard when they walked into their math class and were given a pop quiz. Neither Jayla nor Tim was prepared for the quiz. As a result, both received failing grades. After seeing her grade, Jayla thinks, 'The math test was tough! I will work hard and study so that I can do better on the next quiz. I will not fail again.' Tim thinks, 'I am so stupid. I always fail at everything. I will never do well in math.'

What is Optimistic Thinking?

Jayla is an example of optimistic thinking. Optimistic thinking is a type of positive thinking characterized by the belief that the future is full of hope and opportunities to be successful. They believe that negative events are caused by external factors, and that they are isolated exceptions to the rule. When something bad happens, people who think optimistically believe that it is not something that will reoccur (unstable), they are not responsible for the bad event (external), and the event has a limited effect (specific). For example, Jayla believes that she failed the test (bad outcome) because the test was difficult, which is an external factor. She believes that she will pass the next test, which indicates that Jayla believes that her failure is an unstable event that won't likely reoccur. She also believes that her failure is a specific, isolated event ('I will not fail again'). Had Jayla passed, she would have likely attributed her success to her math abilities (internal), and believed that her abilities would allow her to continue to do well on future math tests (stable), and that she will continue to be successful in other endeavors as well (global).

Optimistic thinking is beneficial because it increases your self-esteem, ability to handle stress, mood, ability to recuperate from sickness, and overall mental and physical health. However, too much optimistic thinking can result in making bad financial decisions and underestimating risks.

What is Pessimistic Thinking?

Tim's response is an example of pessimistic thinking. Pessimistic thinking is a type of negative thinking that is characterized by the belief that bad things are a common occurrence and that there is little hope for the future. Unlike optimistic thinkers, pessimistic thinkers believe that bad events are internal, stable, and global. For example, Tim believed that he failed the math quiz (bad outcome) because he is stupid (internal). Tim also believes that he will continue to fail math tests in the future (stable) and that he will fail at everything (global). If Tim had passed, he would have attributed his success to luck (external), believed that it would not happen again (unstable) and that it has no bearing on his future success (specific).

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