What Pessimistic Traits Look Like And How They May Affect Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A person’s outlook can impact many parts of their life, from relationships to mental health. While pessimism and never getting one’s hopes up may seem to some like the safest choice, this attitude may potentially cause more harm than benefits. Below, we’ll explore the mechanics of pessimistic thinking, how it may manifest in a person’s choices and behavior, and the potential effects of this approach on mental health—plus how to seek support if you’re looking to shift your own perspective.

Is pessimism negatively impacting your life?

Pessimistic thinking and explanatory styles

A person's explanatory style is thought to be closely associated with their general outlook on life. Explanatory style is a concept first developed by Martin Seligman, a psychology researcher and former president of the American Psychological Association. The term refers to the ways in which a person interprets and understands the world around them and how they explain the world to themselves and other people. A negative explanatory style in particular is associated with pessimism and can result in “learned helplessness,” or a person’s belief that they lack control over their own environment and any stressors they may encounter.

With a pessimistic explanatory style, a person tends to explain any adverse events in their life as the result of some immutable core personality trait(s) within themselves. Because of this immutable nature of the cause of the disappointing event, they come to believe that negative events will continue and will impact many different areas of their life—not just the area where one occurred.

With an optimistic explanatory style, in contrast, a person is more likely to interpret upsetting events as caused by outside forces that are specific to the situation. They may also believe that the event is unlikely to repeat itself or to extend to other areas of their life.

A real-world example of positive and negative explanatory style

To better understand them, let’s apply the concept of explanatory styles to a real-world situation: missing the bus. With a positive explanatory style, you may conceptualize the situation in the following way: “I missed the bus because, on my way to the stop, I tripped over a rock and spilled my bag everywhere, so I had to stop to pick everything up. It wasn’t great, but that’s pretty unlikely to happen again.” This explanation touches on the three core components of an optimistic explanatory style:

  • The event was caused by outside forces (you missed the bus because your bag spilled, and you had to take a moment to gather everything).
  • The event’s cause was specific to the situation (you spilled your bag because you tripped on a rock, not because you are a habitual bag-spiller).
  • The event’s cause was finite and fixable (the rock was a random bit of bad luck that is unlikely to repeat on future walks to the bus stop, and you may learn to watch your step more closely in that same area next time).

On the other hand, a negative or pessimistic explanatory style might frame the same event as follows: “I missed the bus because I’m fundamentally slow and unpunctual. Yeah, I tripped on the rock and spilled my bag, but if that hadn’t happened, something else would have stopped me from getting to the stop on time. I somehow always find a way to mess up. How will I ever progress in my career if I can’t even catch a bus on time?” This explanation features the three contributing factors of a negative explanatory style:

  • The event is caused by a core personality trait (you are slow and unpunctual).
  • The event’s cause will impact other areas of life (you’ll never get ahead at work).
  • The event’s cause can’t be fixed or changed, so it and/or other undesirable events will happen again (you’ll never be able to catch the bus on time because something will always stand in your way—and many times, that something will be your own incompetence).

Unsurprisingly, a pessimistic explanatory style can lead to overly negative thinking and emotionality, which may result in mental and even physical health consequences. 


Other traits often associated with a pessimistic outlook

Although having a negative explanatory style may be the dominant trait of pessimism (and a potential cause of many other related traits), it’s not the only trait or behavior a person with pessimistic tendencies may demonstrate. For one, they may struggle to maintain a balanced perspective—for example, focusing more on their own flaws than on their good qualities. In some situations, they may even become annoyed by people who have a more optimistic outlook. In such cases, they may have a hard time accepting the opinions and contributions of optimists and may show distrust toward them. 

That said, even if pessimists believe themselves to have a “better” or more accurate outlook than their “idealistic” counterparts, they may still call themselves “realists” because it has less of a negative connotation than “pessimists.” When things do work out in their favor, pessimists may exhibit genuine surprise; and yet, it is unlikely that they will shift from their tendency to plan for the worst. That’s because pessimism is often used as a defense mechanism. People with this tendency may rationalize that you can never be disappointed if you don’t get your hopes up in the first place.

A sense of foreboding may also accompany the good things that happen to someone who leans toward pessimism. They may wonder how long things will be good before ‘the other shoe drops.’ Or, when they achieve a goal, they might focus on the negatives first—such as getting a sought-after promotion at their job but fixating primarily on how much more work they’re going to have to do in their new role. They may not trust that the good things or people entering their life will stay “good” or are even deserved, so they’re likely to have a hard time trusting others and showing vulnerability. Pessimists may believe that others are judging them even more harshly than they are judging themselves and generally struggle to accept or believe compliments. They may have trouble seeing the good in themselves, other people, or the world.

Pessimism and mental health

Pessimism has the potential to negatively impact mental health, including in some ways that might not be immediately obvious. First, consider one study that suggests that COVID-19-related stress and anxiety in adults showing pessimistic tendencies during the height of the pandemic appeared to be more closely tied to a sense of “psychological inflexibility” than a tendency toward pessimism on its own. Researchers define psychological inflexibility as the use of dysfunctional coping mechanisms to avoid unpleasant feelings or events—a hallmark of pessimism—which is what appeared to have contributed significantly to negative psychological effects. 

Consider also a 2020 study that suggests that neither optimism nor pessimism is the healthier option—that in fact, realism seems to be the most beneficial for mental health. Researchers suggest that this may be because it’s the gap between expectations—positive or negative—and reality that tends to be the most mentally harmful.

That said, a preoccupation with the negative on its own can still have various effects on mental health. For one, pessimistic people tend to feel alone in their worries and believe that nobody—especially people with a positive outlook—cares about things as much as they do. They may possess low self-esteem and engage in higher levels of negative self-talk and behave in a self-sabotaging manner in relationships (or avoid them altogether) as a result. Low self-esteem and negative self-talk are often associated with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression and a lack of close social relationships has been associated with negative mental health outcomes more generally, so these manifestations of pessimism may directly impact a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

Finally, people who lean toward pessimism may also tend to use less helpful coping mechanisms for stress, such as denial or distancing. They’re also generally less likely to take reasonable risks in different realms of their lives—career, relationships, personal endeavors, etc.—because they believe things won’t work out. This could lead to less positive life outcomes and less social support as well as an increased risk of developing stress-related health conditions from depression to heart disease.

Is pessimism negatively impacting your life?

Finding support in managing pessimism

If you recognize a negative explanatory style or other traits associated with pessimism in your life, you may be interested in learning how to shift your outlook. It can be a complicated process to change deeply entrenched thinking patterns, but it is possible with time, patience, and the right tools. Mindfulness is one practice you can try on your own in an effort to work toward this shift. It may help you become more aware of your thinking patterns in general so you can adjust them as desired, and it may also empower you to rest and even find joy in the present moment rather than fixating on what the future may hold.

If you’re looking for additional support on the journey toward shifting your perspective, you might also consider working with a licensed therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular is a modality designed to help a person learn to shift unhealthy thoughts and behaviors over time. A cognitive behavioral therapist can also give you a safe space to express your emotions, help you discover tools for managing uncertainty and anxiety, and support you on your journey to engage with life in a more authentic and potentially healthy way.

If you are skeptical about the potential effectiveness of therapy, which is not uncommon in individuals who lean toward pessimism, online therapy may be more appealing to you. It can feel less intense and intimidating than traditional in-person therapy, which may help those who are a bit more hesitant about the therapeutic process feel comfortable opening up. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can schedule appointments at times that work for your schedule and attend them from a place where you feel comfortable; all you need is a stable internet connection and a working smartphone, computer, or tablet. Since research suggests that online and in-person therapy can be similarly effective for addressing a variety of mental health challenges and concerns, you can generally feel confident in selecting either format.


People with a more pessimistic outlook on life often tend to make negative assumptions about themselves and the world around them, which can have damaging repercussions on relationships, life outcomes, career success, and mental health. If you’re looking for ways to shift your worldview in a more realistic direction, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy are two tactics that may help.

Understand how different outlooks can shape life
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