Is your cup half-full or half-empty?

How do you view yourself, your relationships, the world and anticipated outcomes of your life events? Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic? Interestingly enough how you see life is actually a component in how it will turn out for you.

Some people are known to expect the worst outcome of any event. These people are termed –pessimists. Their partners often call them “negative”, and find this attitude to be draining and tiresome. One woman put it this way: “It is hard to stay happy when my partner is always negative.” Not only is it unpleasant to hear complaints, it is also contaminating the feelings of the positively prone partner.

Other people are hopeful and positively inclined in terms of events’ outcome. They anticipate success and deal with the setbacks as challenges, not evidence of their ineptitude. These people are termed optimists.

Though optimism is mostly a positive and helpful belief, an aspect of it can be dangerous. Dr. Vaknin terms it “The Malignant Optimism”. This term is used for those whose positive outlook views cause them to “refuse to believe that some problems are unsolvable, some diseases incurable, and some disasters inevitable.” They are extremely invested in believing that good will triumph over evil, health over sickness and right over wrong. This unrealistic attitude can prevent these optimists from seeking medical care, protect themselves from unsafe people or events, and keep on gambling because they ultimately deserve to win.

It is important to stress that both optimism and pessimism are attitudes based on beliefs, not facts. If an individual is engaged in a venture, where the early data indicates that the project may not succeed, choosing to abandon the project is not a sign of pessimism. Nor continuing with this work is necessarily a sign of optimism. It may be related to the interpretation and projection of facts.

The origins of optimism and pessimism are not altogether known. There has been some research to support the idea that some genetic element does exist in regard to optimism. It is also safe to assume that parental pessimism is a modeled perspective. Some negative life view may also stem from unfortunate early life experiences about which the child had no control. Though, we still find people who had similar unfortunate events and adopted a hopeful outlook and a positive disposition.

Whether pessimism is innate, learned, or acquired, it serves the person poorly.

Medically, studies have shown that the health of pessimists is seriously compromised. Dr. Schultz reported in a paper to the American Psychosomatic Society in 1995 that pessimism “was a significant predictor of early mortality among young patients with recurrent cancer”. A study of Harvard University graduates found that, compared to optimistic men, “pessimistic men had significantly poorer health or were more likely to have died when they were assessed 20-35 years later”. There are other studies that did not find a direct correlation between pessimism and health but found that pessimism affected the immune system through increasing the patient’s stress level, which impacts health.

Interpersonally, pessimism is often viewed as negativity, powerlessness and a self-defeating attitude. Indeed, it has been shown that pessimistic people are more likely to suffer setbacks when bad things happen to them than do optimists. Pessimists often personalize events and see their bad luck occurrences as either signs that they have failed, or that they are unworthy and doomed to suffer. This helpless position causes them to feel victimized by life. When they adopt this existential stance of “bad things always happen to me”, they interfere with their ability to minimize bad outcomes or the impact of unfortunate happenings on them.

A woman, whose bank made an error, lamented: “Why do all the bad things always happen to me?” Her statement implies that she was selected out for inconvenience over others. When her husband was laid off from his job, she took this event to further substantiate that she is being “punished” again. Instead of being supportive to her husband at this crucial time, she proceeded to complain about others and her bad lot in life. Her husband was emotionally abandoned and withdrew from her. Then she blamed his former employer for harming her marriage. This is the cycle of erroneous, pessimistic belief system that compounds suffering of individuals and couples.

The pessimistic view confines the believer to self-centerdness, self-hate and futility about control in one’s life. All three outcomes are incongruent with having a healthy relationship. The partner of the pessimist often begins with reassurance, trying to dispel myths about unworthiness and bad-luck spells. With time, the pessimist is seen as unavailable, unapproachable and powerless within the relationship.

Pessimists also lose out on fun, adventure, creativity and exploration in life due to their anticipated worst outcome scenarios. They nix their partner’s suggestions with a list of objections due to foreseen problems and failures. Mates often get discouraged from suggesting anything and are left to create their own fun, which further distances the partners.

It appears that a sound attitude avoids extreme, unrealistic optimism or a deep restrictive pessimism. A middle of the road belief in the good in others with a cautious approach serves us best.

If you are pessimistic, consider these points:

• Your view of life is counter-productive for your health and relationship.
• Living with a pessimist is a challenge. The negativity interferes with intimacy.
• You deserve to have a happy, successful and intimate life.
• You cannot continue to hide behind your personality. ”I can’t help it, I was born that way.” You do have the power to change your belief system.

• Get professional help. Cognitive–Behavioral therapy and certain medications have been very effective in helping pessimistic people.

• Your partner is entitled to have a happy life with you. You do not have the right to block intimacy from his or her relationship.
• Learning that the cup is actually three quarters full will improve your emotional, physical and spiritual life.

April 24, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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