Summary: Most people prefer to spend time with optimists, but because pessimists are more numerous, and because optimists frequently avoid pessimists, few have the luxury of spending time only with optimists. Optimist and pessimists thus create separate clusters.
Sources: I've done little research on this topic, so I'll just point you to three topics which you can read about a bit on Wikipedia: Explanatory style, Optimism, Martin Seligman (psychologist who discovered the state of learned helplessness and seems to have worked on optimism & explanatory style), and a long article on optimism vs pessimism.
The reason why I'm writing about it is because I think it's such a brilliant description of attitudes of people around me -- emotional and verbal (explanatory!) attitudes. I used to be on both sides of the spectrum at different times in my life, and I also have spent lots of time with both very pessimistic and very optimistic people. I have seen how these groups affect me, and what kind of emotional reality they create in me. I was moved by the simplicity of the distinction dr Seligman describes in his short video below. You can guess which group I decided to stick with :)
Definition: Who's an optimist and who's a pessimist? Watch the first minute of the video below.
When a pessimist has a bad experience or a setback, he thinks:
- It's going to last forever
- It's going to undermine everything
- It's my fault.
An optimist with a bad experience thinks:
- it's temporary
- it has little to do with me
- it only affects one small part of my life
Now reverse each one for reaction to a positive experience.
Now a few thoughts based on my personal experience.
- once you get this explanation in your head, it gets very easy to quickly spot optimists and pessimists around you - just listen to how people explain their life circumstances, problems, successes and failure, how they distance themselves (or not) from external forces like weather, boss, job, politics etc.
- it might look like optimists are irrational, even delusional. It very well could be. I think this is not a problem for most optimists, because it mostly applies to their life's history -- not to their plans! For example, when an optimist is planning what to do next, he'll generally see things quite similar to everyone else - but he'll get so much more motivation and support from their (perhaps completely inaccurate) beliefs!
- for the most part it is the optimists that share smiles with everyone for no apparent reason, speak in excited tones about anything, and generally appear to have a good day more often than others
- I don't care if there's a "pure pessimist" and a "pure optimist" out there - it's more important to classify someone's general explanatory style as mostly pessimistic or optimistic.
Here's why I think this model of optimistic vs pessimistic attitude is such a useful tool for handling relationships with others:
- optimists share lots of joy, hope, happiness, smile and - broadly speaking - positive emotions with others. It's not to say that they only share these things, but typical meetings of optimists have this positive tone.
- pessimists share concern, worry, critical analysis, stories of problems and - broadly speaking - how life is a burden to them or to others, and how things won't ever change for the better.
- because of 1. and 2., almost everyone prefers to spend time with optimists
- there are fewer optimists than pessimists in societies (I also believe that for example in Poland the ratio is at least as bad as 4:1 for pessimists, or worse. This is a hunch though - no analysis done.)
- many optimists have much more power in life than pessimists (they have more energy/hope to try new things, more friends, better jobs, more money, thus more freedom) and realize that they can choose who they spend time with. Not surprisingly, they wall off pessimists because pessimists steal positive energy and introduce too much anxiety and frustration into optimists' life.
- clusters of optimistic people are created. pessimists cluster together as well, probably because having pessimists around is better than having nobody
- many people spend most of their life without a single optimist around them (I believe it's completely destructive), falling into learned helplessness in important areas of life
And a few concluding thoughts (again, these are my own hunches and combination of opinions of some of my mentors - not research-backed results!):
- It might be possible to change one's style. I can't say I have a clear example in my mind though! If any of you do, I'd love to hear the story :)
- it should be relatively simple to fake optimism when interacting with others, at least for a while, and in fact some aspects of this attitude are shared in many self-help, team-work and communication resouces. I'm not sure how to fake emotions, but for verbal communication some typical tips are:
- do not complain. DO NOT COMPLAIN! It's so trivial, but apparently so hard to do (I still do it from time to time, then apologize for complaining to the people around me and quickly change the topic :). There's a fine line between complaining and sharing one's bad experience :) Perhaps just laughing and making a joke out of it is all that it takes...
- when trouble comes, become "constructive', i.e. admit that you/someone has a problem (one of the hardest things to do for humans :) and focus on finding & executing a solution (not just finding and rejecting every single one after critical analysis, without trying :)
- praise others, even for small accomplishments
- praise yourself, even for small accomplishments
- if faking works for a while, perhaps it works longer term, too (it's just practice in looking at life events in a different way and paying more attention to good things)
- family is first important environment where it's possible for someone to be surrounded exclusively by pessimists.
Happy optimizing your life :)