There are a number of ways of dividing up the spectrum of personality types; the Big Five model is the most popular, but there are others. Some people are born lucky: they’re optimists. How I envy them! Their glass is half full rather than half empty – when I look at my glass, I’ve just had a sip and it is already a third empty.
Although optimism-pessimism is an important personality construct in its own right, it’s unsurprising that optimism correlates with other aspects of personality. I consult my favourite book on individual differences, Maltby et al.’s (2013) text Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence, to confirm what we might have expected: that in terms of the “Big Five” personality factors, optimism is significantly positively correlated with extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and negatively correlated with neuroticism (see in particular Sharp et al., 2011). I’m surprised there isn’t a negative correlation with openness; how can you be open to new experiences if you expect everything to turn out badly? Better the devil you know.
Needless to say optimism is correlated with good health and well-being. Optimistic people enjoy better physical and mental health, and they age better too. It didn’t take long to find a study suggesting that optimistic people might be less prone to Alzheimer’s disease later in life. They are a number of reasons for these findings: optimism seems to have a positive effect on the immune system, provides people with better coping strategies, enabling them to deal better with stress, leads to more positive health and life habits, and to an absence of negative mood (which we also know is bad for health). One has of course to be careful about inferring causality from a correlation (of course you’re likely to be more optimistic if you’re not suffering from chronic ill health, or more pessimistic if you’re under great stress), but the evidence suggests that optimism does indeed play a role in driving well being.
Pessimism can have a serious and negative impact on our lives (beyond simply our being more likely to die tomorrow). As academics carrying out research we are obliged to submit grant applications to get funding for our research and to write papers reporting that research when we’ve done it. There’s a great deal of rejection in academic life (some of it nastier than most people imagine), and if you’re pessimistic about your chances of success you’re going to be less likely to submit something in the first place. So your career suffers.
As you might expect, in general I am not usually an optimistic person, although I am trying to be more so. Here is an example of one recent chain of thought. As frequent readers of my blog will know, I’m now no longer working for The Man and am self-employed as a writer, consultant, and journalist: a professor with a licence to roam on whatever he is interested in. What good be better? (Except being paid more for it; all decent offers of paid work considered!) But it so happens that Monday 15th is my birthday. I’m 58. (Yes, I know you thought I was much, much younger.) To me that sounds unbelievably ancient, even though in my head I’m still only 19. 58 is uncomfortably close to 60, which is getting on for 70. Women in the UK until recently used to have to retire at 60, and men at 65. When I was growing up the life expectancy of a man was around 69. ****! I’m nearly that age! And after 70 it’s not too long until 80, which sounds really, really old to me now, and I think most people who are alive 80 have some kind of infirmity. I already have a touch of arthritis in my left little finger. And many people don’t make 80. And at 80 the life expectancy for a man is just over another 8 years. If I make 80, a big IF, I’m likely to die in September 2046. That’s not far away at all; I’m as good as dead. And we’re supposed to celebrate birthdays?
This line of reasoning isn’t just pessimism, it’s a mode of thought, called catastrophic thinking, which characterises depression. Minor difficulties or obstacles are turned into insurmountable hurdles. I’d heard of it before of course, but it was only recently that my therapist pointed out how often I think catastrophically. I am currently single; therefore I am destined to die alone. I will never find love again. I will never even touch anyone again. I’m too old to change, and too old to find a new partner. After all, I’m getting on for a 100. Except I’ll be dead before then.
Another example, one which happened while I was writing this blog: I spent ages (well, a few minutes) cleaning the cooker hob, and I’ve just dropped a piece of mushroom on it. All that time and effort was completely wasted, I thought. What is the point of ever cleaning anything? Let it rot.
Catastrophic thinking is one of the most insidious and pervasive yet least well-known features of severe depression. And one of the most annoying.
I seriously worry sometimes about the death of the universe. Everything is pointless. I don’t worry too much (it’s a Lesser Worry rather than one of my many Great Worries) but I admit it’s odd that I worry about it at all. I ask other people and most of them don’t give a damn about the End of the World let alone the End of the Universe. If you don’t worry about the end of the Universe and your place in the great scheme of things, I recommend you don’t try the Total Perspective Vortex, a creation in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy of five. It shows you that you are a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, with an arrowing indicating YOU ARE HERE. Such realisation drives (almost) everyone mad.
I don’t know why I’m bothering to write this; I doubt if anyone will read it.
Maltby, J., Day, L., & Macaskill, A. (2013). Personality, individual differences and intelligence (3rd ed.). Harlow: Pearson.
Sharpe, J.P., Martin, N.R., & Roth, K.A. (2011) Optimism and the Big Five factors of personality: Beyond Neuroticism and Extraversion. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 946-951.