Optimism/Pessimism and Stress

March 17, 2017

Optimism/Pessimism and Stress

There is a difference in the way that people approach experiences, challenges, and stressors. Those people who are more optimistic in their outlook will tend to expect more positive than negative things to happen to them. Whereas, people who are more pessimistic in their views tend to expect more negative outcomes. While there are positives and negatives to both perspectives, there is a large body of research that has shown that optimists, when compared to pessimists, adjust better to difficulties. More specifically, optimists tend to adjust better to stress and exposure to a stressor than pessimists. Optimists have been found to experience less psychological distress and less negative impact on long-term physical well-being.

Optimism and Stress

Stress and the consequences of stress may arise from how people appraise experiences rather than from the experiences themselves. Optimists tend to have a generalized positive outlook about the future, and this impacts how they appraise and approach stressors. It has been found that optimists generally report experiencing less distress during stressor exposure compared to pessimists, and it seems that optimism may have a protective role during the exposure to a stressor in that optimism acts as a buffer against the adverse impact of stressful events. To understand the underlying components of why optimists deal with stress better, we will look at goal engagement and their choice of coping strategies.

Goal engagement

There are often two options when encountering challenges; engage to overcome the challenge and achieve goals, or disengage to avoid the challenge and give up on the goal. The choice between these two options may depend on whether or not the desired outcome is perceived to be attainable. Because optimists see positive outcomes as attainable, they are more likely to engage and continue to invest effort in order to achieve their desired outcome, rather than give-up or disengage as pessimists may do.

A number of studies have shown how dispositional optimists persist longer on tasks compared with pessimists, in some cases particularly when self-awareness is high, as self-awareness tends to highlight own goals. The tendency for optimists to expect positive outcomes and remain engaged in challenges creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because positive outcomes and success are actualized. On the other hand, for pessimists, the tendency to expect negative outcomes and give up on challenges creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.


Optimists are more likely to appraise goals as achievable and are more likely to approach challenges and work hard to achieve their goals. Pessimists tend to take the other perspective, they are likely to appraise goals as unachievable, and so are more likely to avoid or disengage from demanding challenges and give up. Optimists are more likely to use a problem-focused strategy or approach strategy.

However, don’t think that the information above means that optimists only ever use these more solution-orientated strategies. Research studies have found that optimists are quite flexible in their choice of coping strategy, and will make adjustments based on the stressor they are dealing with. So, rather than always choosing approach problem-focused coping, optimists will choose approach problem-focused coping when the stressors are controllable, and approach emotional-focused coping when the stressors are less controllable.  


Optimism has consistently been associated with higher levels of psychological well-being, while pessimism has been associated with lower levels of psychological well-being. Optimists have been shown to have a better mood and emotional adjustment, better life satisfaction and social support, and are less likely to experience mental health problems, particularly in relation to exposure to stressors. For example, optimists in their first year of college described experiencing less stress, depression, and loneliness as well as feeling more socially supported than their pessimistic colleagues. Because of the large body of research in this area, it can be stated that optimism plays a buffering role in the stress-distress relationship.

 Optimism has also been linked to better physiological well-being. For example, optimism has been associated with better physiological well-being in terms of cardiovascular and immune functioning. Compared to pessimists, optimists have also been shown to report less pain, better physical functioning, and to experience few physical symptoms. Optimism has also been found to be a significant predictor of physical health.

However, there is some contradictory evidence here. Several studies have found that optimists, in combination with high-challenge, correlate to lower cellular immunity. One study, exposing participants to a stressful mental effort task, found that optimists displayed goal engagement, and persisted longer than pessimists on the tasks, but also experienced short-term physiological costs. There are also indications that the positive connection between dispositional optimists and goal engagement may involve a higher likelihood of goal conflict, which has been linked to physiological cost through lower immunity.

These results indicate that the engagement displayed by optimists in the face of stressors may be taxing and that although goal engagement may be beneficial in the long run, in the short term there may be physiological costs. However, despite potential short-term costs, the persistence demonstrated by dispositional optimists is likely to be beneficial in the long run, resulting in goal achievement and related to positive physical and psychological well-being.


There are many positive links between optimism and goal engagement, coping, adjustment, and well-being, and establishing ways in which optimism can be increased would be beneficial. However, as a personality trait optimism has been found to be relatively stable. Further, optimism is estimated to be 25% heritable, and financial security, warmth, and attention from parents in childhood may also predict adult-degree of optimism (Heinonen, Räikkönen, & Keltikangas-Järvinen, 2005).

Despite being considered fairly stable, optimism can change over time. Some ways this has been achieved has been through cognitive behaviour therapies. It is not a matter of pushing people to “pull themselves together and become more optimistic,” but rather giving people the knowledge and tools to better cope with specific challenges. Coping skills appear to contribute to a better outlook, and subsequently a better approach in how to cope with stress. 


Optimism does appear to play a role in how people respond to stressful situations. Optimists tend to expect more good things to happen to them than bad, and when exposed to stressors, they believe in positive outcomes, persist at goal engagement, and use approach coping strategies to deal with the stress at hand. The overall outcome for optimists appears to be better psychological and physiological well-being, including less distress, better life satisfaction, and social support, as well as better cardiovascular and immune functioning.  


More on this topic:

Are You Suffering From Burnout?

What Is Stress?



Heinonen, K., Räikkönen, K., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2005). Dispositional optimism: Development over 21 years from the perspectives of perceived temperament and mothering. Personality and Individual Differences, 38(2), 425-435.

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