It’s a regular parenting request: how to help the pessimistic child become more optimistic. There is genuine panic among some parents that their kid just seems to see the negative all the time. It’s exhausting to parent a kid like that and the concern is that our little “born pessimist” will always be negative about life.
It stands to reason that the more we learn about how important a happy outlook is for a good life, the more we want our kids to have the traits that define an optimist. Certainly, parenting an optimist feels less like hard work than parenting the pessimistic child (I speak from experience, having kids of both types of mindset).
But is it actually such a bad thing to be a pessimist? And are pessimists necessarily more unhappy than optimists?
Optimism versus pessimism
There’s long been a culture that suggests that pessimism is something we need to change. An entire field of Positive Psychology has erupted to Psychologists have found strong causal links between optimism and positive outcomes, but it might surprise you to know that pessimism isn’t all doom and gloom.
The presiding philosophical and psychological view is that we are hardwired to be an optimist or pessimist (or a realist, but we won’t touch on that today). There are benefits and negatives to being each of these mindsets, though in our “choose happy” culture, optimists have had the better rap for years.
Three ways optimists and pessimists differ
Positive psychology founder, Professor Martin Seligman, suggests that there are three “explanatory” factors that determine whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist.
1. Permanence versus temporary – a pessimist will generally assume that if something goes wrong, it will always go wrong. So a pessimistic child will find it very hard to reach for a B when they have had a few Cs in a row. They will assume they are a C student and that’s that.
An optimist will not look for a negative pattern and instead assume that things will go better next time. So those few Cs were just necessary steps on the way to a B.
The tendency for a pessimist to see patterns as permanent can be a good thing when it comes to future planning and delayed gratification. Pessimists tend to arrive (including at middle and older age) better prepared than optimists.
2. Global versus specific – when things go wrong, a pessimist is prone to catastrophising the situation. They see the event as all-pervasive and global. A botched recital for the pessimistic child means “I’ll never be any good at piano”; a harsh word from a friend means “I’m not likable for anyone.”
An optimist, on the other hand, sees a negative occurence as a setback to be overcome. It’s not a reflection on their overall life, merely a moment in time. So they will say, “I didn’t play my best at the recital, I’ll need to practise and do better next time”; or, “I must have done something to upset my friend, I’ll have to make it up to her.”
On a positive note for the pessimist (such a strange turn of phrase to write!), they are more likely to take events seriously and work hard to avoid negative outcomes. They are better focused on security and safety and it’s possible that as a result pessimists actually face fewer challenges in life than optimists.
3. Internal versus external – Finally, Optimists also tend to externalise things, and therefore believe that events are unrelated to themselves and likely to stay or go away of their own accord. Pessimists, on the other hand, internalise things and will therefore believe that negative occurrences are the result of something that they have or haven’t done. Flip this, though, and it stands to reason that pessimists also believe that they are responsible for their own happiness too, that they are somewhat more in control of the outcomes of their everyday life, and that they can affect the course of their life in a much more hands-on way.
Pessimists go okay
Some “defensive” pessimistic mindsets like this actually do pretty well. Defensive pessimism can be an important tool in overcoming anxiety (whereas an optimistic type might run screaming in the other direction at the first sign of difficulty). This type of pessimist is happy to bunker down and ride out life’s challenges, often coming out on top because they don’t give up easily and have a strong focus on safety and security.
I’m sure you’ve met this type of “pessimist” in your life and found them to be anything but doom and gloom. Often they are the type that might see the glass as half-empty, but they don’t really mind so much. Ultimately they know that the glass is refillable anyway.
This is important particularly when we compare this type of pessimist with the unrealistic optimist. There’s a lot of this kind of optimism going around too – the “think positive” pop psychology mantras that ignore life’s troughs and make some of us feel guilty whenever we feel down. This kind of optimism bias can lead to excessive risk-taking behaviour and irrationality, both traits that when unchecked, can lead to mental health issues.
Embrace natural tendencies
Bottom line is that if you’ve got a little pessimist on your hands, there is no cause for panic. To help them see life’s “brighter side” you can take steps to help them foster a growth mindset, improve their resilience, practise gratitude and play to their strengths. After that, they will pretty much be happy to take responsibility for themselves and face life’s challenges with an admirably stoic spirit. Rest assured, they will be cheering on the inside.
Do you have an optimist or a pessimistic child?
Image by Joshua Rawson-Harris