Optimist or Pessimist?

Photo by John Bakator on Unsplash

by Dr. Norris Frederick 

What a Winter

What a hard winter it’s been.

In the winter of 1804-05, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their expedition of some thirty men live for four months in a small fort, which consists simply of long wooden stakes facing the river and two rows of huts.[1] They build the fort across the Missouri river from a Mandan Indian village, freezing through temperatures that go as low as 50 degrees below zero.  It’s so cold that when the men go outside to pee, they have to be quick to avoid frostbite.

The men have been traveling by boat and by foot since August 31 of 1803,  struggling down the too-low waters of the Ohio River, then up against the current of the Missouri River, wintering in 1803-04 near St. Louis, then struggling again against the current through what is now South Dakota and North Dakota.  The primary goal assigned Lewis by President Jefferson is to see if there is a water route that will connect the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean.   The hardy band has been attacked by Sioux, become friends with the Mandans, suffered with scurvy, broken bones, and seen the death of one crew member. 

In April, after the ice on the Missouri River melts, they break winter camp and head their boats west, further west than any white men have been, accompanied by the trader Charbonneau and more importantly his 15-year-old Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, and her infant son.  Sacagawea will be able to translate the language of the Hidatsa and the Shoshones.  On May 26, 1805, Lewis climbs the high bluffs on the sides of the river, and for the first time he sees in the distance the Rocky Mountains, with the sun shining on snow-covered peaks.  He is elated.  As he writes in his journal, “While I viewed these mountains I felt a secret pleasure…,” as he thinks of nearing the headwaters of the Missouri River. 

He realizes he has cause to worry:  “When I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I had felt in the first moments I gazed on them.” 

But then, with what Stephen Ambrose calls Lewis’ “characteristic resolution and optimism,” Lewis writes, “As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road until I am compelled to believe differently.”[2]

What Difference Does It Make?

 Are you an optimist?  Or a pessimist?  Or somewhat more one than the other?  Is it in general better to be one rather than the other?

First, as Socrates teaches us, it’s important to think about what these words mean.  “Optimism” comes from the Latin optimum, which means “the best.[3]  A pretty good general definition of optimism is that it is “the tendency to be hopeful and to emphasize or think of the good [or best] part in a situation rather than the bad [or worst] part, or the feeling that in the future good things are more likely to happen than bad things.”[4]  So optimism is both about the present – how we feel about and regard the present and its circumstances – and also the way we feel and think about the future and its prospects.

“Pessimism” comes from the Latin pessimus, meaning – you guessed it – “the worst.”  One definition of the word vividly captures this “worst”:  Pessimism is the doctrine that reality is essentially evil, [or] the doctrine that evil overbalances happiness in life.”[5]

Pessimism can be characterized as “an inclination to emphasize adverse [bad or the worst] aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.”[6]  Like optimism, pessimism is how we feel about and think about the present and the future.  

But both optimistic and pessimistic tendencies are also about how we will act in the present and future.  Our feelings affect our actions and our thoughts, and our thoughts affect our feelings and our actions.  Repeated actions are habits that affect and reflect both feelings and our beliefs. 

Realistic Optimism

Recalling our description of Meriwether Lewis, we can see a balance between his concern about the “sufferings and hardship ahead,” and his belief that it will be “a good comfortable road” until proven otherwise, that forms what we might call a realistic optimism, which serves him and the expedition well.  An unrealistic optimism foresees no hardships and does not prepare us, and therefore we are thrown off balance at the time balance is most needed.  That’s as true now as much as it was in 1803 – 1806 for Lewis and Clark and their expedition.

From the time that Lewis first saw the Rockies it will be another six months before they reach the Pacific Ocean, and they will endure many physical hardships and disappointments.  They will learn there is no water route that comes close to connecting to the Missouri, thus disappointing the main hope of President Jefferson and the expedition.  They will travel in freezing conditions for two weeks over the Bitterroot Mountains, led by an elderly Shoshone guide whom they can only hope knows the way.  They will be forced to kill and eat horses and dogs.  But led by Lewis and Clark and their positive attitudes and the trust built between them and their crew, they will succeed in reaching the Pacific, and in one more year return to their homes in the East.  Theirs was one of the most remarkable feats of exploration ever accomplished.

Strong traits are essential for a good life.  There are many such traits that are important, and among those is optimism.  Optimism, closely associated with hopefulness, energizes us and keeps us seeing the good both in the present and in the future.  As Martin Seligman writes, “Optimistic people tend to interpret their troubles as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation.  Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do, and are uncontrollable.”[7] 

Seligman writes that there have been “thousands of empirical studies” which demonstrate that “Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at…challenging jobs, and better physical health.”[8]

A century earlier the philosopher and psychologist William James pointed out that there are two types of optimists (who he called the “healthy-minded”).  The first type are those who are naturally optimists, whose spirit  is of a “sky-blue tint,”  who connect immediately with nature and beauty and “all enchanting innocence [rather] than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God.”[9]   The second type, “Systematic healthy-mindfulness, conceiving good as the essential and universal aspect of being, deliberately excludes evil from its field of vision.”[10]

Objections to Optimism

There are two objections to optimism.  James states the first:   It seems “perverse” to ignore the reality of suffering and evil in the world.  This argument favors the pessimist, who at least can assert to be facing reality. In response, however, realistic optimism acknowledges that the reality of some suffering and evil is to be expected, but emphasizes the value of “reframing” the present and the future and approaching them looking for the good.

A second objection is based on contemporary neuroscience and psychology.  Studies show that from “50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness”[11] can be explained genetically. There is a “cortical lottery” that we all participate in without having bought a ticket!  As Jonathan Haidt writes, studies show that “People showing more of a certain kind of brainwave coming  through the left side of the forehead reporting feeling more happiness in their daily lives and less fear, anxiety and shame than people exhibiting higher activity on the right side. [Research also shows that] these cortical ‘lefties’ are less subject to depression and recover more quickly from negative experiences.”[12]

This objection may lead us to conclude that we are therefore “determined” to be either optimists or pessimists.  However, the evidence shows “influence,” not “determinism.”  We can indeed become  more optimistic, as argued by Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism, and by Jonathan Haidt, who offers three ways we can “change our minds.”[13]  We can reduce fearful or negative thoughts by meditation, practiced regularly over several months; by cognitive therapy, which teaches us to dispute our irrational beliefs; and by medications such as Prozac or other serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). 


This is not to say that to change’s one outlook is easy.  For some people suffering from severe depression, either from the cognitive lottery or from critical life events, it may be a lifelong struggle.  This is not a discussion about who wins and who loses, but a discussion about reality and a good life.

A Final Word

Being a realistic optimist does not mean that we must be complacent in the face of suffering.  Such a person is an optimist, but also realistic, and necessarily acknowledges challenges and suffering. 

William James offers a word that he thinks mediates between optimism and pessimism, “meliorism,” whose Latin root means “better” (as in the word, “ameliorate”).  As James puts it, meliorism holds that “improvement is at least possible.”[14]

Look around us in our home and society:  what could be made better?  Hopefully most of us will not have to overcome challenges as great as those faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition, but isn’t there a fighting chance that if certain conditions are brought about, by the involvement of enough people, we can improve education, cooperation, trust, housing, nutrition, responsibility, meaningful freedom, and more? 

Our ideals, writes James, are not just abstract thoughts, “they are live possibilities” and “we are their live champions.”[15]

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[1] The facts in this section come from Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage:  Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York:  Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2002).
[2] Ambrose, 227.
[5] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pessimism
[6] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pessimism
[7] Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 9-10 (New York:  The Free Press, 2002).
[8] Seligman, 83.
[9] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 80 (originally published 1902; New York: Penguin Books, 1982).
[10] James, Varieties, 88.
[11] Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 33 (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
[12] Haidt, 33.
[13] Haidt, 35 – 44.
[14] James, Pragmatism, 61 (originally published 1907; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).
[15] James, Pragmatism, 137.

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Teri Orsini
Teri Orsini
1 year ago

Dr. Frederick…. your thoughts backed by research and your deep insight always seem to appear in my inbox just when I need them. As we come out of this long, dark period (COVID-19, reckoning with racial injustice, woefully misguided presidency of the past four years), I found myself reading your thoughts and reigniting my basic optimistic outlook. Keep ’em coming!

Scott Killgore
Scott Killgore
1 year ago

As one who lives in a small city on the Missouri River (St. Joseph, MO), I appreciate the story about Lewis and Clark, and your reflections on it. I continue to marvel at what those people endured and accomplished more than 200 years ago.

Your essay brought to mind a statement I heard from a woman in my church a few years ago. Her words have stuck with me. The back-story is that her husband of 20 years died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 50. I conducted his funeral, and then about 5 years later conducted her wedding to her second husband. On the occasion of the second anniversary of her second wedding, she said, “People who focus on whether a glass is half-empty or half-full miss an important point. The glass can be re-filled.” There is much wisdom in her words…

…as is always the case with what you share. Thank you.

Ginger Marr
Ginger Marr
1 year ago

I always appreciate your thoughtful words, Norris. I needed to read them today! Thank you for the positivity and light you’ve always brought to our campus and to so many lives!

Charles Reed
Charles Reed
1 year ago

A VERY nice piece, sir. Thank goodness you and I are “measured” optimists.


Ike Casey
Ike Casey
1 year ago

Bringing in the story of Lewis and Clark really gave this discussion of optimism and pessimism so much more meaning. I read Sacagawea about a year ago and was as moved by her realistic optimism as that of Meriwether Lewis. I think I would have given up faced with the challenges those explorers faced. She seemed to be more prepared for the rough weather, lack of food, illness and other difficulties that you describe. I wonder if we can prepare ourselves to be realistic optimist over the years. As I get older, I think we can.

Charles Eakes
Charles Eakes
1 year ago

Another superb piece from Norris Frederick and I am glad to see you tie together key pieces of well-beingness with optimism at the foundation. Many who do not know the depths of chronic pessimism, judge those who carry such heavy weights. The attitude of “just get over it” is sickening and so damaging. I have seen many cases of chronic vs. episodic pessimism, and do my best to support and help clients in my care see and understand the spectrum that Lewis and Clark witnessed over and over. Steven Ambrose chose wisely his historical stories to feature across his writing career. Thank you for teaching and influencing so many people over the years and I am lucky to be one of those learners.

Thomas Tewey
Thomas Tewey
1 year ago

As Madeleine Albright use to say “i’m an optimist but I cry a lot”

John Clark
John Clark
1 year ago

I apologize right off the bat for responding with a somewhat prosaic distinction. Norris, as usual I liked your essay. Here are my thoughts:

To be an optimist or to be a pessimist? Is that the question? Ok, not really. Given our early and subsequent socialization plus other factors, generally we are inclined to be more of one than the other. The point I wish to suggest is a very fine one: Optimism and confidence are two different states.

Personally, I believe I am neither strictly an optimist or a pessimist. When I take on a project or embark on an action to achieve an outcome I desire, I do not engage in a thought process that is about optimism or pessimism. Instead I move ahead with confidence in my abilities to be successful. Yes, some would say, well, this is being optimistic. I say there is a difference, although slight.

Optimism and pessimism are states regarding outcomes, about how one feels about what will result. Confidence is not about outcomes per se, but rather about one’s feelings concerning the strategies and actions one is about to use. Naturally one wants very much to be successful. A pessimist will feel she will likely be unsuccessful given the nature of the challenge; an optimist will feel she will be successful regardless of the challenge. A confident actor does not concentrate on the outcome but rather on how she will perform in meeting her goal.

If one says “I am confident I will achieve my goal,” then she is an optimist. If one says, “I am not sure if I will succeed, but I am confident in my abilities and the course of action to do the best I can.”

Splitting hairs, possibly, but then why not? As German poet Friedrich von Schiller once said: “To be human in the full sense of the word is to play.”

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