Optimistic or Pessimistic – which is better?

Updated Sep 1, 2007: Ramesh Ramaswamy points to a pertinent article. Please see below.

As an eternal optimist, i have always felt that it is better to have an optimistic outlook. But i always have problems with either/or strategies because i have found through experience that either/or confines your thinking to those 2 strategies and makes you not think of a third or a fourth strategy even if those were available.

I felt that Optimism Vs. Pessimism is a similar either/or trap and possibly there is a third answer. And finally, I found the answer in Jim Collins’s brilliant book Good to Great.

He talks about a concept called as the Stockdale Paradox which is based on Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Collins describes the concept in the book as follows:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

This is the third strategy i was looking for. Optimism doesn’t completely convey this idea fully because it doesn’t allow for the kind of beatings/torture endured by Stockdale. A pure optimist would have long given up and Stockdale confirms that with the examples of optimistic people thinking about Christmas and Easter.

Archana Raghuram’s excellent post on Man’s search for Meaning and her follow up post on the Stockdale Paradox gave me the impetus to write this post.

Yes, you may say, that we all are not likely to be held as a prisoner of war or in a concentration camp. That is true.

But life throws a lots of hurdles, trials, pains, sorrows at you and this is especially true when you are working on tough assignments or projects. Under those circumstances, a regular optimistic approach may not be helpful. You need the Stockdale or Frankl kind of “we shall prevail eventually” approach.

What do you all think?

[Statements below added Sep 1, 2007]:

Ramesh Ramaswamy posted a comment pointing an excellent article by Price Pritchett. He finishes the article with these telling conclusions:

It’s true that pessimism, at times, can be turned to our advantage. But usually pessimism just carriers too big of a price tag.

Unflinching realism, with its bland and uninspired objectivity, will occasionally serve us best. But realism focuses too much on ‘what is’ at the expense of considering ‘what could be.’ It respects the head while ignoring the heart.

Let’s be honest about this — a fundamental but overlooked aspect of ‘reality’ is, in fact, what we think and feel and hope inside. That is a power born of ourselves, and it’s very real in its influence on our lives.

Most of the time, and in most aspects of our being, optimism has by far the most to offer.

Play the odds — think optimistically.

This article contains a lot of ideas from Pritchett’s book Hard Optimism which i have not read. I think Optimism may not work in difficult situations as Stockdale and Frankl have shown. But if you think Stockdale’s attitude is too difficult to attain, Optimism is clearly better as Pritchett says.


  1. Quote
    Anonymous said August 26, 2007, 12:39 am:

    Thanks for linking my post, Sukumar. In fact it was you who pointed me to Stockdale Paradox. I got some interesting responses to the post. One person made this observation

    /*The big problem with stories like this is we simply don’t know how many people shared the mindset but died anywise, so basically we have an example of “counting the hits and ignoring the misses.” I wonder if any scientific studies have ever been made of the mindset of people who have survived such experiences. */

    It got me thinking of Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote a best selling book, “The power of positive thinking”. You must be aware that he committed suicide.

    Having said that, I also feel optimism has many advantages. I think it is wrong to assume that optimism and realism are mutually exclusive (as this paradox seems to imply). It is possible to be fully awake to the current problems and yet believe that even this will pass.

    Given a choice I will choose to be optimist. If not anything, I’ll atleast die happy 🙂

  2. Quote
    Anonymous said August 26, 2007, 12:49 am:

    How I approach difficulties is not with the attitude of I shall prevail. I used to believe that before I started working. Now I know that life is not always fair and it is only the powerful who prevail, more often then not 

    Through each one of my difficult experiences, I have learnt so much. When I look back at them, I feel good about having come out of it unscathed. Many people succumb, become frustrated, unhappy, bitter or compromise on their values. The fact that I have not done that makes me feel good about myself. Every difficult experience has made me a better person. So whenever I am in the difficult situations I think of all the times when I had to face worse. I know even this will pass and I would have learnt some valuable lessons.

  3. Quote
    Anonymous said August 27, 2007, 1:48 am:

    Thanks Archana. I saw that comment on your blog. The reason i believe this is because it is clearly a different strategy and can be adopted. Victor Frankl’s story that you posted also corroborates the same. BTW, i think this is nuanced position on optimism. In general, i think you got to be optimistic to survive life’s trials and tribulations.

  4. Quote
    Anonymous said August 27, 2007, 1:57 am:

    Thanks again Archana. You make a very good point. Yes, the Powerful may prevail but i think that is temporary. Life eventually catches up and metes out retribution in its own way. As you say, it is important to learn from difficult experiences and not become bitter and frustrated.

  5. Quote
    Anonymous said August 28, 2007, 11:15 am:

    Two enlightened people sharing their thoughts here! 🙂 At this point, all I can say is this: I am neither worried about optimism nor about pessimism. Just seeing what is happening and proceeding – Regards, Untitled 🙂

  6. Quote
    Anonymous said August 28, 2007, 11:21 am:

    Thanks Untitled for stopping by. -Sukumar

  7. Quote
    Anonymous said August 28, 2007, 3:38 pm:


    Might be interesting!!

    – Ramesh

  8. Quote
    Anonymous said August 28, 2007, 11:34 pm:

    Hi Ramesh,

    How are you doing. You know, last week I got a call from your India mobile number. It was from someone who seem to have your old mobile. Did you hand it over without deleting your phonebook 🙂 If you see this comment, please send me your mail id.

    Sorry for Spamming your comment section, Sukumar. I have been meaning to write to Ramesh and lost his mail id.

  9. Quote
    Anonymous said August 30, 2007, 11:35 am:

    Excellent link Ramesh. Thanks for sharing – Sukumar

  10. Quote
    Anonymous said August 30, 2007, 12:21 pm:

    No issues Archana. – Sukumar

  11. Quote
    Anonymous said September 4, 2007, 3:41 am:

    “The mind is its own place,

    and in itself can make heaven of hell,

    or a hell of heaven”

    – John Milton

  12. Quote
    Anonymous said September 4, 2007, 7:13 am:

    good one Ranjit. It accurately captures the power of human imagination.

  13. Quote
    Anonymous said October 18, 2007, 1:28 pm:

    This is a new thing for me, but i feel, i have experienced this more often. Particularly, at critical problems, my intuit will believe, that i can solve it, but to my intellectual, there would be no way. But in the end, situation would become conducible, and finally i would get away.
    In that angle, an optimists just believes, but in stockdale paradox, its like optimism pushed to our subconsciousness, where our intellectual prepares for the worst, which most probably might not happen, or might be tackable.
    Anything, imbibed in our subconscious, will bring about surprising changes.

  14. Quote

    Hi Sukumar,
    I came to this post because the link you had placed to my post appeared in the comments section a couple of days back (I don’t know why)

    I am glad I came back. The update you have provided from Price Pritchett is truly amazing.

    /* a fundamental but overlooked aspect of ‘reality’ is, in fact, what we think and feel and hope inside. That is a power born of ourselves, and it’s very real in its influence on our lives. */

    absolutely mind blowing.

  15. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 30, 2007, 11:31 am:

    Thanks Archana.

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