Insights On What May Cause Pessimism

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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The American Psychological Association defines pessimism as “the attitude that things will go wrong and that people’s wishes or aims are unlikely to be fulfilled.” If you tend to be pessimistic or if you have pessimistic people in your life, you may be wondering what leads some to see the glass as half empty while others see it as half full. In reality, a multitude of both biological and environmental factors can contribute to a person’s life outlook. That said, it’s possible to shift one’s perspective by adopting new ways of thinking and coping in order to mitigate some of the potential negative health effects that an excessively pessimistic outlook could cause.

Troubled by a pessimistic worldview?

Potential causes of an overly negative outlook

There are a variety of factors that could contribute to a habit of negative thinking or expecting adverse outcomes. Some of these include the following.

Low self-esteem

If someone doesn’t feel good about themselves, they may have difficulty taking a more positive perspective on anything else, either. This may be why some pessimists project their negative assumptions onto other people and situations. In other cases, a pessimist with low self-worth may believe they don’t deserve good things, which can lead them to assume the worst for themselves while idealizing the lives of others.

Pessimistic parents

If a pessimistic person raised you, you might be more likely to develop patterns of pessimistic thinking yourself. If your parents or caregivers never modeled more optimistic thinking or even actively ridiculed those who did, shifting away from pessimism could even feel like a foreign concept

Research has also demonstrated that there may be a connection between pessimism and specific aspects of brain functioning, which indicates that there could be a genetic component to always anticipating a negative outcome. In other words, pessimistic people may have literally inherited some measure of their brain’s negative thought patterns from their biological parents.

A heightened negativity bias

Humans have what is known as a “negativity bias” built into our brains, which is the tendency to remember negative events and information over positive events and information. We all—not just pessimistic people—are predisposed to spend more mental energy on negative aspects of life than positive ones. Many scientists believe the negativity bias developed as an evolutionary advantage: Early humans who paid more attention to the possibility of predators and learned from past dangerous experiences were more likely to survive and pass on their genetic information than those who did not. 

The negativity bias may be more pronounced in certain people than others, whether because of genetic or environmental factors. A more active negativity bias could lead to more pessimistic thinking. 

Past experiences of abuse

Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can occur during childhood, in romantic relationships, or even in situations that people may not typically associate with abuse, such as in a workplace context, at school, or between friends. Anyone can experience abuse, regardless of gender, age, or other identity characteristics. Living through this type of traumatic treatment can lead to the development of a pessimistic worldview and may also heighten the possibility of developing certain mental health conditions associated with negative thought patterns in the future. 

A history of loss or trauma

Anyone who has undergone a significant loss may find that their mindset is shaped by that experience. Examples include the death of a close loved one, going through a divorce, experiencing war or a natural disaster, or being let go from a job that brought meaning and purpose to one’s life. Sudden loss can make a person feel destabilized and come to believe that the world is not a safe, happy, or predictable place, which can lead to pessimistic thinking. 

Other experiences with rejection, humiliation, or disappointment

You do not need to have experienced such an intensely traumatic situation as extreme grief or abuse for external events to shift your worldview toward one that is more pessimistic. If you have a lot of experience with rejection, disappointment, or prejudice—such as a history of social difficulties or loneliness—you may start to believe nothing will go your way, and you might develop a cynical mentality as a result. 


Defensive pessimism

Defensive pessimism is an attitude that refers to the use of pessimism as a defense mechanism. It may be more common in people who have experienced high levels of disappointment in life. Essentially, the philosophy of defensive pessimism suggests that it hurts less to have your hopes dashed if you never got them up in the first place. 

Those who are hoping to avoid future disappointment may adopt an attitude of defensive pessimism to attempt to protect themselves. Defensive pessimists may not see themselves as pessimists and may instead believe they have a more realistic view of the world than optimists do.

Certain mental health conditions

Some mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often feature negative thinking patterns as a core symptom. Other mental illnesses—such as eating disorders, substance use disorders, and gambling disorders—also tend to manifest as problematic or risky behaviors as a means of coping with negative thoughts. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD are also associated with pessimistic thinking as well as with core beliefs about the world or oneself that are fundamentally negative, such as “People are only out for themselves and will stab others in the back the first chance they get,” or “I am never going to succeed no matter how hard I try.” 

Potential negative health impacts of pessimism 

Positive psychology research suggests that optimism and pessimism do not simply affect how you think; they may also impact your overall health. Pessimistic thinking may be part of a vicious cycle: It can be caused by health conditions such as a mental health disorder, but it can also lead to health conditions that affect mental and physical well-being. The following are examples of the potential toll a pessimistic outlook can take on your body and mind: 

  • Lower levels of emotional resilience, meaning that adverse life events may be more impactful for a pessimistic person and lead to downstream negative effects on relationships, personality, occupational success, etc.
  • A less resilient immune system
  • Increased chances of developing certain health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease
  • Worse recovery prognoses and a heightened risk of mortality from a number of physical health conditions
  • An increased risk of sleep problems and disturbances
  • A higher chance of developing or relapsing with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and others
  • A shortened overall lifespan

Note, however, that defaulting to excessive optimism instead may not be the protective mechanism one might think it to be. Instead, research suggests that realism may be the healthier option, since it’s one’s expectations—positive or negative—not matching up with reality that seems to cause the most harm.

Finding support for healing and shifting your worldview

If you believe you have a pessimistic attitude or recognize yourself in some of the potential risk factors for developing pessimism, you may be interested in shifting your mentality towards one that is more realistic to help avoid some potential negative health impacts. Mindfulness, expressive journaling, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies are examples of techniques that could be helpful in this process. Cognitive behavioral therapy under the guidance of a trained mental health professional in particular can be a potentially effective method of shifting ingrained thought patterns. They can also help you work through any past trauma and address symptoms of any mental health conditions you may be experiencing.

It can be challenging to encourage someone who is naturally skeptical to reach out to a therapist for support with difficulties they may be facing. In instances like these, online therapy can be a more approachable option than traditional in-person therapy. With online sessions, you can speak to a therapist on your schedule and from home, which can feel less intimidating or more comfortable for many.

Troubled by a pessimistic worldview?

Scientific research has demonstrated that online therapy may be just as effective as in-person therapy. A 2021 meta-analysis of multiple studies on the topic suggests that online and in-office therapy formats can generally offer similar results in most cases. In addition, an older study suggests that people who completed a course of online CBT intending to shift their thought patterns experienced comparable outcomes to those who attended traditional in-person CBT, indicating that online treatment may help those who want to combat a tendency toward pessimism.


Many factors could contribute to the development of a default pessimistic attitude, including mental health conditions, low self-esteem, negativity bias, being raised by pessimistic parents, adverse life experiences such as abuse or loss, and pessimism as a defense mechanism. Practicing mindfulness, journaling, and speaking with a therapist are examples of techniques that could help you gradually shift your mindset in a healthier direction over time.
Understand how different outlooks can shape life
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