Stefanie Buhrman

Did you read that headline as “Opportunity is now here” or “Opportunity is nowhere?” Depending on how you read it, optimism or pessimism could be consuming your life.

“Optimism can mean many things,” said Zlatan Krizan, professor of psychology. “There is ‘little’ optimism, which pertains to an expectation of an event or a grade on a test. Then there is ‘big’ optimism, where you expect good things to happen at the end.”

Krizan said with big optimism, evidence shows there is a beneficial positive psychological outcome.

“[Optimism] makes every day better and more enjoyable,” said Katie Flickinger, junior in dietetics. “I’m almost always in a good mood.”

Although Flickinger sees herself as an optimist, she recognizes a few times when pessimism got the best of her.

“I’m not a pessimistic person, but I can sometimes have a pessimistic attitude based on different things I face,” Flickinger said. “When I get in a bad mood or upset about something, it is easy to be pessimistic. But the only thing it does is make my bad mood worse or make me more upset. Then I have to pray about it or talk to friends and family and then, generally, I feel better and the optimism just comes right back.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mitchell Pohlkamp, junior in civil engineering, labels himself as a pessimist.

“I see the negative side of everything before I see the positive,” Pohlkamp said. “The glass is half empty. I think I will do horrible on exams, so I study a lot more than I need to. I don’t take a lot of risks. I always think I’ll get turned down.”

Already knowing that being a pessimist affects his own life, Pohlkamp said he knows it affects those around him as well.

“I may bring the mood down of others around me,” Pohlkamp said. “I wish I was more optimistic. Everything would look better or ‘half full.’ I tried to be optimistic before, but the pessimism just broke through the optimism.”

Pessimism, usually viewed as a negative quality, still shows some positive side effects.

“There can be benefits to pessimism,” Krizan said. “In general, there aren’t many benefits, but it can be used as a strategy called defensive pessimism. To prepare for a performance, they will use pessimism to judge how well they will do. If they say ‘I am not going to do well’ then they are motivated to pull out all their stops and perform well.”

Pessimism can be used advantageously in other situations, as well.

“People embrace pessimism to avoid future disappointment,” Krizan said. “If you are expecting a bad grade, you will be pleasantly surprised to receive a better grade than if you expected yourself to get a higher one.”

Going too far with either perspective can bring on difficulties. Optimism bias, a state of being overly optimistic, can be problematic.

“There are issues with optimism bias. People persevere through losses, and it can be potentially costly.”

Krizan uses the example of gambling as an example of optimism bias gone wrong. Even though someone might have suffered through significant financial losses while gambling, the person might be optimistic enough to keep gambling – only to lose more money.

“Their outlook might be bias and they might need to be reminded of a time when things did not work out,” Krizan said. “They might also lack the right information. A lot of the time, you need all of the right information to make an accurate judgment. It is important to help foster accuracy.”

Even though Flickinger views herself as an optimist, she knows where to draw the line.

“I think that it is important to be optimistic, but also realistic. In some situations, there may be no good outcome and you just have to face reality. At the same time, you can make the most of the situation and that’s where it can be very helpful to be optimistic,” Flickinger said.

Being optimistic may sound easy to those who are already considered optimists, but for those who are pessimistic, optimism is not completely out of reach.

“Tell them they are really responsible for their successes and that it wasn’t just blind luck,” Krizan said. “If you help them take credit for success, it might help foster general optimism.”