(English vocabulary for optimists and pessimists B2+)
“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.”
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Are you a glass half-full person or a glass half-empty person? It’s probably not quite as simple as that. Our optimism (and pessimism) often rise and wane through different periods of our life.
A global pandemic is a test of our optimism. It’s important we have our feet firmly on the ground. Remember that the pessimist looks down and hits their head. The optimist looks up and loses their footing. The realist looks forward and adjusts his or her path accordingly.
While the pessimist and optimist are arguing about the glass half-full or half-empty, a thirsty realist might just step in and drink it.
Benedicte writes below that optimism is a good mechanism for survival and it is also necessary for relationships, evolution and progress.
You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down
There is a famous story about young twin brothers. One brother was an optimist. He was always full of hope and always saw the good side of people and situations. The other brother was a pessimist. He was generally quiet and always saw the bad side in everything. Their parents, worried about their boys’ great difference in attitude, consulted a doctor who gave the following recommendation: for their birthday, give the best toys to the pessimistic boy, and a pile of manure (animal faeces, such as a horse, used for fertilizing the garden) to the optimistic boy. That should balance the twins’ personalities, the doctor said. So, the parents did just that.
On their birthday, the pessimistic boy found his room full of shiny toys. But he complained: the toys might break, his friends will be jealous, he could hurt himself on his new bicycle. The optimistic boy received a pile of manure. He ran out to the garden, exclaiming with joy: “Where is the pony?” He thought that, because there was manure, there had to be a pony to go with it.
Now you might say, the pessimist is more realistic than the optimist. For indeed his toys might break, his friends might be jealous, etc. And you might say, the optimist is full of delusions (delusions are ideas or beliefs that are not true). As indeed, the manure did not come with a pony in this story.
At the end of the day, which attitude is the best one to have in life? Is it better to see the glass half full, or half empty? There are pros and cons to both.
“My expectations were reduced
to zero when I was 21.
Everything since then has been a bonus.”
– Stephen Hawking
It is more natural for us to expect the worst possible results. This is because life has always been very hard. Life is an imperfect business. Life wasn’t meant to be easy. Think about prehistoric humans and the kind of life they had. Think about history, full of wars, epidemics and other nuisances. If we expect hard times ahead, we can prepare for and survive the trials of life such as dangerous animals, famines and disasters. Pessimists are more prudent in life, they always have a “plan B”. This makes them feel good, more in control. They have few expectations (expectations are the belief that something will happen). And they are unconvinced about new ideas. Which isn’t always a bad thing.
The problem with pessimism is that it can make one unhappy or too conservative – or both. On the other hand, pessimists can develop a sense of humour and joke about the difference between life and expectations.
The scientist Stephen Hawking said, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” Not expecting anything from life and finding that good things happen anyway is one of the joys of pessimism.
Optimism, on the other hand, is a good mechanism for survival too, but it is also necessary for relationships, evolution and progress. Optimism helps us have hope for the future, see the positive in people and in situations, and it makes us creative. Hope generates creativity. Optimists are also more motivated because they strongly believe they can succeed.
The clear problem with optimism is having to meet frustration and disappointment and experience many trials and errors (trying several possibilities and learning from your mistakes). True optimists learn from every disappointment thanks to their positive outlook. They carry on, despite everything. They believe!
There is evidence that optimistic people
are healthier, mentally
and physically, than pessimistic people
So you might ask, how do these perspectives influence someone’s life? For example, do pessimists have more accidents than optimists – or vice-versa? And do optimists suffer more from anxiety than pessimists because of their many expectations?
There is evidence that optimists are healthier, mentally and physically, than pessimists. However, pessimists can also be very healthy through good habits (diet, exercise, etc.) because they know they will get sick if they don’t make the effort. Always preparing for the worst.
And in terms of success, maybe pessimists have more success in life because they don’t take unnecessary risks and they ensure they don’t fail by preparing for all circumstances. Or maybe optimists have more success in life because they take risks, they are motivated to succeed, and they have more ideas.
But in the end, this is all too black and white. We are not all pessimistic, nor are we all optimistic. We are a mixture of both.
Here is another story about optimism and pessimism: The Two Travellers (level: C1-C2)
I find that I have both pessimistic and optimistic outlooks on life: I am excessively prudent in certain aspects, and excessively hopeful in others. It’s probably a complicated mixture that comes from temperament, experience and upbringing.
- What about you? Are you more of an optimist, a pessimist, a mixture of both, and how so?
- How can optimism and pessimism help us in the time of the pandemic?
Please tell us in the commentaires section at the bottom of this page. We’d love to hear from you!
Match the words with their definition. Answers are below.
- At the end of the day
a. making very little or no noise
b. something that has a bright surface that reflects light
c. to think that something will happen
d. used for saying what you consider is the most important thing about a situation after thinking about it
e. one of two children born at the same time to the same mother.
f. to say that you are not satisfied with something
1:c – 2:e – 3:a – 4:b – 5:f – 6:d
- Pros and cons
- Thanks to
g. (in this context) a painful or difficult experience
h. despite something that you have previously mentioned
i. the advantages and disadvantages of something
j. used for saying that someone or something is responsible for something good that happened
k. a lack of something that you need or want
7:i – 8:g – 9:k – 10:h – 11:j
- Carry on
l. used for saying that something happens even though something else might have prevented it
m. an idea about what a situation will be like in the future
n. physically strong and not ill
o. to be unsuccessful when you try to do something
p. to continue doing something
q. facts or physical signs that help to prove something
12:m – 13:p – 14:l – 15:q – 16:n – 17:o
- In the end
- Dwell on
r. the way that parents look after their children and teach them to behave
s. the edge of the road, where water flows away
t. finally, after a period of time or thought
u. to spend a lot of time thinking or talking about something unpleasant
v. a combination of two or more different things, people, qualities etc
18:t – 19:v – 20:r – 21:s – 22:u
- Cheer up
w. a curved line of colours that appears in the sky when the sun shines while it is raining
x. to become less sad, or to make someone feel less sad
y. a sharp point that sticks out from the stem of a plant
z. someone’s determination to do what is necessary to achieve what they want
23:y – 24:w – 25:z – 26:x
Definitions from MacMillanDictionary.com
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Who said what…
Match the quotes with their author:
- “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
- “Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.”
- “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
- “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
- “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”
- “You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down”
- “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”
- “Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.”
- “When things are at their blackest, I say to myself, ‘Cheer up, things could be worse.’ And sure enough, they get worse.”
a. Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor)
b. Oscar Wilde (poet, playwright)
c. Charlie Chaplin (actor, filmmaker)
d. Antonio Gramsci (philosopher, politician)
e. Thomas Friedman (author, journalist)
f. Roy T. Bennett (author)
g. Alphonse Karr (author, journalist)
h. Robert Asprin (science fiction author)
i. James Branch Cabell (fantasy author)
1:b – 2:f – 3:a – 4:g – 5:i – 6:c – 7:d – 8:e – 9:h
The School of Life presents “The Wisdom of Pessimism” (2mins 50secs) in this very amusing video:
Hear about the difference between optimism and positive thinking here (1min 20secs):
Alain de Botton, an English philosopher and writer, talks about pessimism in this lecture (39mins):