Focus: Half full or half empty?


Optimism provides tools, creates hope


Often acknowledged as people who “see the glass half-full,” optimists and their positive emotions can undo the effects of stressful experiences, benefiting people’s mental and physical health.

Optimism is defined by hopefulness about one’s future or the successful outcome of something. Optimists see situations in a positive light,and assume the best. Certain people can be born either optimistic or pessimistic, depending on their genes. According to, twins who had been separated at birth and raised in different environments still share many of the same traits such as abilities, interests and their pessimistic or optimistic views on life.

“Everything about us is a combination of our genetic influences and our environmental influences; one cannot disentangle the two. However, it does seem that some people are just born optimistic and some are born pessimistic, which could be backed up by multiple psychological studies,” said Valerie Parrino, AP Psychology teacher.

  For several years, psychologists, following the ideas of Sigmund Freud, believed that people needed to express or “let out” their anger and anxiety in order to be happier. However, a study from Brad Bushman, Ohio State University psychology professor, has shown that when facing adversity, unleashing anger—hitting a pillow or being vindictive towards a person—can actually lead to feeling drained and more upset overall.

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”
                                                                                                              – James Branch Cabell

People who are happier with their lives tend to choose activities that benefit their health, such as exercise or maintain healthy eating habits. This is because they are more likely to believe that good things will come out of those positive actions, whereas pessimists tend not to see the point in bettering their lives because they believe that things will end up badly. “Optimism helps people by giving them hope to continue in difficult situations, and the focused energy to persevere. It is an important factor that pushes us to succeed,” said Parrino.

However, being overly optimistic could be an issue if it changes one’s perception of reality. Illusory optimism is a psychological term describing people who reject more negative outlooks even when presented with more realistic yet less optimistic facts. Such people see the world with the proverbial “rose-colored glasses,” and fail to take sensible precautions in their lives,  believing that bad things cannot or will not happen to them.

“People need to have a balanced view of reality. Too much optimism can blind a person to real risks,” said Parrino.

There are various ways people can be more optimistic during times of hopelessness.

“Sometimes we get stuck in negative thinking patterns. By choosing to focus on our own positive aspects of our lives and focusing on our own actions that contributed to positive outcomes can be helpful,” said Parrino. In addition, just being around positive people causes one to be psychologically influenced by them, leading to positive thoughts.

Ultimately, it seems best to choose a happy medium; however, optimistic thoughts lead to far better outcomes, both mentally and physically, than negative ones.

Pessimism creates vicious circles


Pessimists, those individuals who tend to “see the glass half-empty,” may face certain psychological problems in the long run, due to their development of negative attitudes.

Negative thoughts come naturally to humans. We tend to remember the bad or adverse events in our lives far more than the good. This effect, called negativity bias, causes us to make many judgments based on the negative effects of something upon us, rather than the positive possibilities.

This is mainly due to evolutionary instincts, which in the past were a key to survival. Developing mistrustful, suspicious behavior served as a way for early humans to accurately assess their surroundings and made them more likely to survive danger. Indeed, even today, according to, pessimists tend to assess their health more accurately than optimists. A 1991 UCLA study in the Psychological Bulletin journal determined that negative events can actually cause a “dampening” or partial memory erasure of the event. The idea of “repressing” traumatizing and negative events is central to the study of psychoanalysis.

”Pessimism can contribute to a person feeling helpless, hopeless, and that they have no control.  This may lead to the teen developing an attitude of ‘learned helplessness.’ This means that the person has learned to be passive and to give up before even trying,” said Valerie Parrino, AP Psychology teacher. In addition, always being in a negative frame of mind can create a self-perpetuating vicious circle, which leads one to constantly think negative thoughts and view everything with suspicion and uncertainty, thus becoming even more negative.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
                                                                                                              – Friedrich Nietzsche

The concept of “attributional style” explains how different people view different events. A negative attributional style can cause one to view an event with failure, while a positive attributional style can cause one to focus on adverse events and try to change them. Sometimes being pessimistic can drive a person to do better.  If a student is pessimistic about an upcoming test and they’re worried they will do poorly, that pessimism may actually push them to spend more time studying or getting tutored. It depends on their attributional style,” said Parrino.

While negativity is not always a bad thing, there are ways to try to trick the mind into keeping a more positive outlook on life. Being overly pessimistic can cause a person to live a life of hopelessness, constantly expecting just failure. Individuals can surround themselves with other positive individuals. “Psychology has shown us that behavior can be contagious, meaning that people mimic each other.  Positive actions and optimistic moods rub off on those around us,” said Parrino.

By trying to move away from a constantly negative frame of mind, one can experience improved mental health; but some negativity can be slightly beneficial. The ultimate key is to balance both types of thoughts and ensure that a balanced outlook on things is attained.

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