What To Do If Pessimism Is Negatively Impacting Your Life

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated March 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Imagine a glass containing water only to the halfway point. Do you instinctively view that glass as one half empty, or one half full? This is a common analogy or phrase used to identify whether someone is an optimist, with more positive thoughts about the future, or a pessimist, with more negative thoughts about the future. According to the analogy, pessimists are those who see the glass as half empty, while optimists see the half full glass, even though there is the same amount of liquid in both cases.

Although many people tend to see pessimism as a wholly negative personality trait, it can actually provide some benefits. However, having a consistently, overwhelmingly negative outlook on life may have consequences. Let’s look at pessimism from a different perspective and a few different angles, and then examine some of the tools you can use if you want to change your outlook on the matter to one that’s a bit brighter.

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Struggling to see the good side of life?

Do you have pessimistic tendencies?

To test whether you might be a pessimist or an optimist, try this interesting thought experiment. Imagine how your life is going to be in ten years. Do you think you'll be doing work you enjoy, in a healthy intimate relationship, and satisfied with how things are going for you in general? Or do you think that life will continue to be a mundane series of routines from which you can seemingly never escape, with no goodness or rewards? If you gravitate toward the latter, you might have some pessimistic thought patterns and you may believe that the glass is half empty. Pessimists tend to expect and descripe more negative scenarios. They may also:

  • Be surprised when things do work out or go well
  • Be more in touch with their flaws than their good qualities
  • Find people with an optimistic viewpoint irritating
  • Rarely take risks, since they expect them to never work out

As with many other things, a person’s outlook on life can exist at many different points along a broad spectrum based on their particular situation in life. That’s why it may be more helpful to think of optimism and pessimism as tendencies instead of fixed traits. Their manifestation can vary in a short time frame, week-to-week or day-to-day, depending on the situation and the time in the person’s life. Plus, it’s generally possible for people to adjust these tendencies at least somewhat with intentional effort. That said, it can be helpful to get familiar with pessimism and what it looks like so you can recognize when it may be affecting your mindset or even impacting your mental health or your life.

Pros and cons of pessimism

There can be both benefits of and drawbacks to a pessimistic outlook.

Potential positives of pessimism

While it can be unhealthy to go through life constantly feeling negative about every situation, expecting that things will go wrong sometimes can be helpful. If you’re unrealistically optimistic and believe that nothing bad will ever happen and life will only be filled with good, it can be more difficult to cope during the times when something bad or undesirable does happen.

In addition, there are the benefits of a mindset known as defensive pessimism. It describes those who use pessimism in a helpful way to plan for the future, and it can be an especially useful tool for those who experience anxiety. It can help give them a sense of control by imagining and then taking measures to be prepared for potential negative outcomes of a situation. There’s a fine line between this strategy and allowing anxiety to run wild and predict all manner of dangers or problems. A good question to ask is, “What can I control’? In its most useful form, defensive pessimism means being realistic about the fact that things don’t always go perfectly and controlling for some of those possibilities ahead of time.

Potential downsides of pessimism

Pessimism isn’t always an entirely bad thing. However, if it begins to interfere with a person’s relationships, sleep patterns, or ability to function, there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. It could be a sign of past trauma, low self-esteem, or a mental health condition like depression, for instance. In cases like these, you may want to try and find what the root cause of your pessimistic thoughts might be—perhaps with the help of a therapist.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Research about the potential physical health consequences of pessimism is somewhat unclear. While a 2016 study found a possible link between pessimism and fatal heart disease, researchers emphasized that it’s an association rather than causation. The study’s results could simply determine that more optimistic people may tend to take better care of themselves because they expect good things in life and enjoy them when they come. Other research has found that more pessimistic people may be more stressed and have less effective coping skills.

Finally, it is worth noting that excessive or overwhelming pessimism may also negatively impact one’s relationships. A friend, partner, family, or colleague may feel inclined to pull away and seek space from someone who is consistently negative and spends a lot of time complaining or viewing situations darkly. It can be difficult to be around someone who exclusively sees the world this way. Since research shows that having strong social support is linked to positive health outcomes, a level of pessimism that drives connections away can be detrimental in more ways than one.

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Tips for adopting a less pessimistic outlook

If you feel that a pessimistic point of view might be negatively impacting some areas of your life and you are having a hard time finding the silver lining in life, it may be worth working to shift toward a more positive mindset. Remember, however, that it’s generally not healthy to constantly live on either extreme of the pessimism/optimism spectrum. Toxic positivity—or relentless optimism to the point of ignoring, suppressing, or dismissing all negative emotions—isn’t a healthy goal, either. In general, it’s best for a person’s outlook to fall somewhere in between the two: a balance of realistic and hopeful. If pessimism is causing issues in your life, the following tips may help you start working toward the more optimistic end of the spectrum.

Pay attention to who you surround yourself with

You’ve probably heard people apply the law of averages to friend groups before, saying that a person is the average of the five people they spend the most time with. If you’re surrounding yourself with people who take a more pessimistic view of life, it’s not unlikely that you’ll absorb or maintain these views yourself, too. If you want to adopt a more positive outlook, it might help to fill your time with people who tend toward an optimistic mindset. The way they look at the world may spread to you or inspire you to see things differently and look for the bright side.

Consider the hopeful viewpoint

Some pessimists take issue with optimists due to a misunderstanding about what optimism actually is. A healthy optimistic outlook doesn’t mean having a blind, unrealistic belief that nothing will ever go wrong. Life can be difficult and tough things happen, of course. Instead, a healthy optimist is hopeful that things will go well or turn out well in the end. This is the quality that can make a major difference. In fact, one study found that hope among students predicted academic achievement even more than intelligence, personality, or previous academic achievement did. A dose of hope can be powerful and help you discover that the glass is half full.

How we use language is an important lens into how we few the world. Using hopeful, growth-minded words or phrases can help you to stay positive. For some people, having a word that they focus on, like “positive” or “happy”  may be a helpful reminder to look for the good things in life rather than focusing on the bad. 

Learn to recognize cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are logical flaws in someone’s thinking process that can warp their perception of reality. They’re fairly common, but they can be powerful and insidious. Learning about and then becoming aware of them when they arise can help you avoid letting your thoughts slip into the negativity that’s out of proportion to the actual feeling or event in question. Some examples of cognitive distortions to watch out for include:

  • Polarized Thinking, is when you think in terms of extremes and ignore the possibilities in between. An example of this distortion would be believing that you’re a failure who will never have a successful career because you didn’t get a job you interviewed for.
  • Mental Filtering is when you tend to focus far more on the negative side of things and mostly or completely dismiss the positive. An example would be having technical difficulties at the start of a work presentation but then doing well and getting positive feedback, and then viewing the entire experience as negative or a failure because of how it started.
  • Catastrophizing is when you tend to assume the worst. An example is when you assume your partner has been in a terrible accident when they’re late getting home from work, without truly considering the possibility that there was traffic or that they stopped at the store.

Cultivating a mindfulness practice is one way to become more aware of your thoughts so you can start noticing cognitive distortions as they arise. These thoughts are often so automatic that it can be hard to catch and then shift them without being intentional about mental awareness.

In addition, a therapist can help you learn to identify and alter cognitive distortions you may be prone to. These patterns of thinking can contribute to symptoms of depression, too, which a therapist can help you manage. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a typical treatment for cognitive distortions, whether they’re linked to depression or not. It’s one of the most widely practiced therapy methods out there today—considered “the gold standard” of psychotherapy—because of its effectiveness.

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Struggling to see the good side of life?

Seeking therapy to help shift your outlook

If you’re interested in getting help identifying the underlying causes of pessimistic thoughts, correcting cognitive distortions, or working through other challenges, therapy may be a helpful resource. Online therapy in particular has become an increasingly popular option for people who prefer to receive treatment from the comfort of their own home. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist whom you can meet with via phone call, video call, and/or online chat. Research suggests that online therapy offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, so it’s one option for receiving treatment.

Takeaway

As with many elements of the human experience, some amount of pessimism isn’t inherently bad or good. If you find, however, that it seems to be having a negative impact on your life, taking some of the steps listed here to progress toward optimism may be helpful. A licensed online counselor can serve as a valuable guide in your journey to cultivating a more optimistic outlook.

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