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Medically reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

How's Your Day Going?

Before you keep reading, take a moment to think about some of the things that happened to you today. Even better, grab a pen and write down a few specific events.

So what did you come up with? Was it mostly positive stuff like: "My day's going great! My grandmother made me pancakes for breakfast. I sat with my friends at lunch, and I actually enjoyed English class today!" Or did your mind land on what went wrong: "My grandmother cooked breakfast and it made me so late I missed the bus. My friends wasted the entire lunch period gossiping about a boring TV show, and I had English class today. I hate Thursdays!"

Optimism Is Healthy

Researchers have spent a lot of time studying people who think positively. It turns out that an optimistic attitude helps us be happier, more successful, and healthier. Optimism can protect against depression — even for people who are at risk for it. An optimistic outlook makes people more resistant to stress. Optimism may even help people live longer.

The best thing about optimism is you can learn it, even if your outlook tends to be more pessimistic.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

Optimism and pessimism are mindsets — ways of thinking and seeing things. Optimists see the positive side of things. They expect things to turn out well. They believe they have the skill and ability to make good things happen.

You've probably heard people who tend to see the faults in everything called "pessimists." A pessimist is more likely to expect things to turn out poorly or to focus on what didn't go well.

People aren't always optimistic or always pessimistic, but most people tend to lean toward one of these thinking patterns. The good news is, if you tend to be more pessimistic, you're not destined to always think that way. We can all become more optimistic by adjusting the way we see things.

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Optimism Helps People Succeed

Optimism goes beyond seeing the bright side of a situation or expecting good things. It's also a way of explaining what has already happened.

When something good happens, optimists think about what they did to make the situation turn out so well. They see their abilities as permanent, stable parts of themselves. They think of how this good thing can lead to other good things.

When things don't go as expected, it's the reverse: Optimists don't blame themselves. They see setbacks as temporary. When something goes wrong, optimists link it to a specific situation or event, not their capabilities. Because they don't view setbacks as personal failings, optimists are able to bounce back from disappointment better than pessimists.

Here's an example: Griffin and Jake both try out for the basketball team during sophomore year. Neither makes the final cut. Both feel disappointed, but they handle it differently.

Griffin is an optimist. He thinks: "There was a lot of talent at the tryouts and only a few openings. That pushed me to practice hard and I played my best — it felt good! The coach gave me great feedback. I'm going to work on the things he suggested and watch all the games this season. That way, I'll have a better chance next year."

Griffin is focused on the specific situation, not on personal shortcomings. He doesn't see the situation as permanent. He fully expects to get on the team next year and is already thinking of how to make that happen.

Jake tends to be more pessimistic. He thinks: "No wonder I didn't make it — I was the worst one at tryouts and the coach doesn't really like me. I never get a break. I might as well face it, I'm just not a great athlete." Unlike Griffin, Jake takes the setback personally. He blames himself, but he also sees outside factors (the coach, life) as working against him. Even worse, he lets this one event make him doubt his athletic abilities altogether.

Which guy is more likely to feel discouraged longer? Who is more likely to practice more and try again? Who is more likely to give up?

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Optimism Builds Resilience

Optimism lets us see disappointing events as temporary situations that we can get past. It strengthens us to try again rather than give up. It allows us to keep our goals and dreams in play so we can act on the motivation to keep working toward them. Because of this, optimistic people feel more in control of their situations and have higher self-esteem.

Pessimism influences us to take disappointments and rejections personally. It also makes them seem more permanent than they are. A pessimistic outlook exaggerates the negative aspects of a situation so they overshadow anything positive. Pessimistic thinking makes it harder to cope when things don't go as hoped.

Realistic Optimism

Optimism isn't about seeing everything as rosy. Optimists don't ignore problems or pretend life is perfect. They just choose to focus on what's good about a situation and what they can do to make things better. Optimists have true confidence because they're prepared: They know they need to study if they want to ace a tough test. They know they can't make the basketball team without practicing.

Optimism goes hand-in-hand with action. It's about finding a healthy balance of positive and realistic thinking.

Is There a Place for Pessimism?

Pessimism can drag us down — so it's good to know we can change a negative mindset. But that doesn't mean erasing all negative thinking. A healthy "what's wrong?" mindset lets us zoom in on a problem. Thinking about what could go wrong helps us avoid too much risk.

Imagine your brother is texting while he drives you to rehearsal. Your negative thinking alerts you: "Hey, this isn't good!" So you tell your brother to stop, if not for his own safety, for yours. In this case you're combining pessimistic thinking ("Texting leads to car crashes!") with optimism ("I know I can do something about this.").

Just about all of us go through a rough patch now and then where it can seem like nothing's working. It's healthy to identify feelings when we're discouraged, and it's OK to talk about what's wrong. Confiding in someone can lift your mood and remind you of the optimistic possibilities. Negative thinking can help you move forward, as long as you don't get stuck focusing on what's wrong.

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How to Be More Optimistic

If you tend toward mostly pessimistic thinking, you can get better at seeing what's good. Here are some things to try:

  • Notice good things as they happen. At the end of the day, take 10 minutes to run through your day and come up with things that you're grateful for. Write them down in a journal or keep track using a motivational app on your phone or tablet.
  • Train your mind to believe you can make good things happen in your life. Get in a habit of telling yourself specific things you can do to succeed. For example: "If I study, I can get a better grade." "If I practice, I'll perform well at the audition." "If I go on that volunteer trip, I'll meet new friends."
  • Don't blame yourself when things go wrong. What does your inner voice say when things don't go as planned? Instead of thinking, "I failed that math test because I'm terrible at math," tell yourself: "I failed that test because I didn't study enough. I won't let that happen next time!" Instead of saying, "Grace broke up with me because I'm such a loser," think: "Now I know why people say breakups are so painful, but hanging out with my friends will help me feel better again."
  • When something good happens, give yourself credit. Think of what you did to make a good outcome possible. Did you prepare for the test? Practice with dedication? Think of the strengths you used and how they helped you succeed.
  • Remind yourself that setbacks are temporary. As soon as something goes wrong, remind yourself that it will pass — and come up with a plan for making that happen. For example: "My SAT results aren't what I hoped, but I can study more and take the test again."
  • Notice how other people talk about themselves. Are friends and family members optimistic or pessimistic? For example, does your dad say, "I burned the hot dogs, I'm just a terrible cook!"? Or does he say: "I burned the hot dogs because I got distracted watching the dog chase a squirrel around the backyard!"?

Optimism is a thinking style that can be learned, which means that pessimism can be unlearned! It can take a little while, so don't feel discouraged. Becoming more aware of the two styles can gradually help you start noticing more ways to be optimistic. Just keep telling yourself, "I can be more optimistic and I'm going to keep practicing!"

Medically reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD