The Costs of Optimism and the Benefits of Pessimism

Optimism reflects a vital attitude that, although, as a rule, is extremely adaptive, in certain circumstances can be one of the origins of suffering. In this article, we'll identify when this is most likely to occur so you can minimize its costs.
The Costs of Optimism and the Benefits of Pessimism
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 03 April, 2023

How many times have you heard that a positive attitude is key to solving your problems? Recently, the idea has gained momentum that being optimistic is a maxim for everyone, that we must work and cultivate this virtue to feel good about ourselves, with others, and with life. While this is true to some extent, it’s not as simple as it seems. In fact, in some situations, the costs of optimism and the benefits of pessimism have been proven.

It’s worth noting that we should see these two terms not as categories, but as the extremes of a continuum. Therefore, we shouldn’t see a person as either optimistic or pessimistic, in a blunt way and without nuances, but as if they’re located at a specific point on a spectrum.

However, is it convenient to tip the balance toward the positive vision that we’re encouraged to hold? We explore the answer below.

The costs of optimism

Optimism began to gain relevance, driven by positive psychology, at the end of the 20th century. Martin Seligman and other authors identified optimism as one of the main character strengths. They claimed that it’s a quality that, if cultivated, brings us closer to happiness, health, and well-being.

Since then, various studies have identified the benefits of being optimistic. For example, they suggest that it’s associated with better psychological functioning and a more positive perception of health and well-being.

In view of the above, we might think that this tendency or willingness to expect positive events or results in the future is something that we should all work on. However, the statement isn’t that categorical as it all depends on the context.

As a matter of fact, in certain circumstances, pessimism can provide us with certain benefits, while the optimistic attitude entails a certain disadvantage. Let’s find out why.

Drawing of dolls covering themselves with umbrellas from the rain
Optimism can sometimes lead to emotional discomfort in relationships.

Health costs

Have you heard about defensive pessimism? It’s the stance you take when you have low expectations and a tendency to look at everything that could go wrong in the future. This provides you with a certain sense of security, although it can also plunge you into incessant discomfort. However, this cognitive strategy also leads you to be aware of the risks and, therefore, try to prevent them.

Regarding health, a pessimistic individual would be more likely to adopt good habits and avoid harmful behaviors, since they’re aware that negative results can occur. In fact, a study published in Psychology and Aging states that it increases the probability of living longer and in better health. On the other hand, being overly optimistic carries an increased risk of disability and mortality.


Optimism can make you feel good while you’re waiting for the wind to blow in the right direction again. However, once this happens, you may feel disappointed. It occurs in the face of expectations that aren’t really adjusted to what you expect.

This idea was evidenced in a study that evaluated how students’ expected grades in an exam influenced the way they felt after obtaining their feedback or final grade. The research showed that the sample that anticipated higher scores in their exams felt worse after learning about their grades (compared to those who were more pessimistic). Moreover, they were aware that this was going to happen.

As a matter of fact, it seems that some people choose pessimism as a strategy, to avoid the disappointment of a negative reality and to gain, if applicable, the relief of an unexpected positive result.

Dissatisfaction in relationships

The costs of optimism and the benefits of pessimism have also been investigated in the field of personal relationships. Expecting the best from your partner and relationship can be positive and constructive. However, it depends on the individual case.

In certain circumstances, having really optimistic expectations can lead to emotional discomfort and dissatisfaction with a relationship. In effect, when discussions, conflicts, and discrepancies arise, these collide with the ideal version the individual has in mind, generating extremely negative feelings.

Furthermore, optimism can prevent pertinent measures from being taken when conflicts arise, since we tend to expect everything to be resolved favorably.

Person holding sign of happy face and sad face
Avoiding disappointment doesn’t mean expecting the worst but finding a balance between the extremes of optimism and pessimism.

How to avoid the costs of optimism

These are just a few examples of how optimism comes at a cost. However, this doesn’t mean that you should employ pessimism to avoid disappointment. In fact, such a posture could plunge you into anxiety, depression, and apathy.

The key lies in finding a balance between both extremes, trying to maintain a positive attitude, but being realistic. This will provide you with the essential motivation to work toward your goals. Moreover, in the case of negative results, it’ll prevent them from being too painful.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.