MOST people who have read and appreciated articles on positive psychology will advocate the benefits of having an optimistic outlook on life.

But some psychologists would also add that a small dose of pessimism is helpful to enable us to see the risks and challenges ahead. They may even argue that it can be helpful to one’s career and well-being.

Some studies have also found, interestingly, that some negativity can result in a longer and healthier life.


Pessimism versus optimism

A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Psychology and Aging found that older people with pessimistic views of the future were more likely to live longer lives than those who thought otherwise.

The data used in the research was based on 11,000 people from a nationally representative survey in Germany.

Apparently, people who are pessimistic about the future are more likely to take defensive and preventive steps to ensure their well-being.

In order to avoid setbacks or failures, these individuals are also more likely to invest in precautionary or preparatory measures.

A long-term study — published two years earlier — that tracked 1,528 people over eight decades, found that subjects who had been identified as “most optimistic” had died the earliest.

The study interestingly found that the optimistic individuals generally ended up taking more risks, including smoking, drinking and riskier hobbies and lifestyles.

The truth, of course, is never that simple.

Another study on optimism published in 2006 reported that optimists have an edge when it comes to general well-being.

However, a study reported in 2011 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that overly optimistic people coped worse with stress.

In summary, psychologists and researchers are increasingly coming to the conclusion that there must be an appropriate balance between optimism and pessimism.

Being pessimistic enough to see the world devoid of rose-tinted glasses gives you a reality check — you can look your career and personal life squarely in the eye and analyse what is good and what is not.

At the same time, you need enough optimism to believe that you can change things for the better.


Finding a balance

What does this research mean for your career?

Review how your feel about your current job. Perhaps you conclude that you are generally lucky to have a good job.

Occasionally, you may feel unhappy or dissatisfied after a bad day at work, but you usually feel better in a couple of days.

If you have a sufficiently but not overly optimistic outlook, you will continue to progress well in your career. This is because you are likely to monitor the risks and risk factors in your career.

Chances are, you can explain the unhappy moments or dissatisfaction you sometimes feel rationally and take appropriate correction action.

However, if are experiencing dispositional pessimism, which is a chronic tendency to expect a future that is more negative than positive, you should take a step back.

Take a pause from work and realistically assess if the situation or circumstances are really as bad as you see them.

Pessimists are more likely to exaggerate negative factors. Discuss the situation with a trusted confidant who truly understands you and your work situation.

Be honest about your circumstances and open to other people’s views. You can then take corrective action as appropriate.

In essence, you should examine your career with both strategic optimism and defensive pessimism. By taking this balanced approach, you can keep your career on an even keel.

Navigating today’s work world is challenging. What you can do is periodically adjust your sails to catch the wind to continue in the direction you want to move.

By having a defensive strategy, you can make informed choices to either update or upgrade your skills and competencies.

Besides that, you can draw up a career plan for self renewal by taking courses or a sabbatical from work to acquire a new academic or professional qualification. You may decide to grow or reconnect with your network of contacts.

Not thinking about developing or growing your career is simply foolhardy.

If you optimistically think everything will work out, you clearly need a reality check.

It is a tendency to think you are somehow better protected than other people, and that tough times are more likely to fall upon other people than yourself.

With the year coming to an end and a new one about to start, reflect objectively on how you want your career to move in 2015. You can then chart your career road map for the next 12 months.


Article by Kamal Kant, a part-time lecturer in careers and employment relations at Nanyang Technological University and SIM Global Education. He conducts career workshops and career coaches in his spare time.