Advanced Reading Lesson: Are you an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Advanced Reading Lesson: Are you an Optimist or a Pessimist?

“If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged  because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Thomas Edison, an American inventor


Answer the questions:

  • What is optimism and what is pessimism? What synonyms for the words can you think of?

Look the the word list. Which words do you associate with optimism and which are related to pessimism?

Defeatism /dɪˈfiːtˌɪz(ə)m/, hopefulness, negativity, cheer, doom and gloom, buoyancy /ˈbɔɪənsi/, confidence about the future

  • Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Is your glass half empty or half full?
  • How do you think positivity and negativity can affect our lives?
  • Do you believe certain nations are more pessimistic than others?


Read the first paragraph of the article and choose the right answer to the question: 

The writer says that British attitudes to the 2012 Olympic Games a) illustrated an underlying mindset b) contradicted stereotypes of national character c) reflected a shift in public opinion d) indicated the dangers of ambivalence (the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas)

As a nation, the British are not a very optimistic bunch. When we were first granted the honour of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, according to an opinion poll at the time, 55% of us were more concerned about the likely impact on the transport network while the Games were on than with celebrating the arrival of the greatest show on Earth. But alongside this type of staunch pessimism resides an unsettling (disturbing) feeling that we should be more positive. We are always trying to dislodge each other’s pessimism. Test it for yourself: sit gloomily in a public place and see how long it takes before a smiling passer-by says, “Cheer up, it might never happen!” or offer one of those trite (banal) aphorisms about “looking on the bright side” or “cloud having silver linings” (a silver lining is a consoling or hopeful prospect).

  • Are your family an optimistic bunch (group of people)?
  • Is staunch /stɔːntʃpessimism/optimism typical of any of your friends? (note that usually people are staunch, that is very loyal and committed in attitude: a staunch critic, supporter, etc.)
  • Could you possibly dislodge your friend’s pessimism? (Could you help your friend think more positively?) If you could, how would you do that?

Read the second paragraph and choose the right answer:

We learn that Professor Fox believes being optimistic a) is more desirable than being pessimistic b) is a necessary counter to our negativity c) is likely to lead to unrealistic expectations d) is as natural a quality as pessimism

The self-help industry rakes in billions through peddling (promoting) hope and positive thinking. But can a positive outlook really improve our lives? How can optimism make people more trustworthy or successful? It can’t, says Professor Fox, a neuroscientist who recently published a book called “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain” about our ambivalent (mixed) feelings of optimism and pessimism. Our negativity is a response of a rational mind and positivity is a delusion, she says, and for most of us they both act to balance us out. “Positivity is a delusion. But it is a useful delusion. If we didn’t have some sort of optimism, we wouldn’t ever get out of bed in the morning. But pessimism has its place,” she says.

  • Do you agree with Professor’s conclusions?
  • Do you ever read self-help books?
  • Why do you think the self-help industry rakes in (earns) billions?

What does Professor suggest about positive thinking in the third paragraph? 

a) It is difficult to find any sensible advice about it. b) It is ineffective unless carefully planned. c) It is desirable as it will lead to material benefits. d) It is likely to be the basis for practical achievement.

So, when we think positively, are we just tricking ourselves that things will get better? It’s a little more complicated than that, says Professor Fox. “Where self-help books say “just think happy thoughts” it doesn’t work.” But some degree of optimism can work to our advantage because if we feel more positive, we will take more positive actions. ” Optimism gives you a sense of control,” she explains.

  • Do you agree that optimism gives a sense of control?
  • Do you think positive thinking has health benefits? If you do, how can an optimist get healthier than a pessimist?

Read the fourth paragraph to know what Professor thinks.

Positive thoughts can have concrete health benefits and can help us through certain situations, Professor Fox explains. In experiments on pain in which students are asked to keep their hands in a bucket of ice water for as long as they can stand it, students who believe they have been given a painkiller, but have in actual fact (in fact) just been given a sugar pill, will keep their hands in longer than those who aren’t given anything. Scans of their brains show they actually produce a surge (sudden large increase) of dopamine /ˈdəʊpəmiːn/, a so-called “happy” chemical, which combats (reduces) the pain.

  • Why did some students keep their hands in longer?
  • Are the findings of the experiment surprising? Why / why not?

Look at the pictures below. How are the situations related to threat and danger? Do you think optimism or pessimism can help people in the situations? 

Setting up your own business
Encountering a bear

Read the last paragraph of the article and compare your ideas with Professor’s.

Don’t shrug off your grumpy cynicism just yet. Professor Fox says a healthy dose of negativity can hep us out, too. “The amygdala /əˈmɪɡdələ/ – the fear system in our brain that helps us detect threat and danger – is really at the root of pessimism (it is the cause of pessimism). Pessimism helps us suss out (understand) danger in our lives.” And although most of us are unlikely to need this reaction the same way our caveman ancestors did – for fight-or-flight reactions (the instinctive physical response to a threatening situation, which prepares you either to fight back or to run away) – fear is still a useful trait. “A pessimistic outlook would work if you were setting up your own business,” says Professor Fox, “to identify risk and avoid it.” So, there is a place for pessimism. “They say the airplane was invented by an optimist and the parachute was invented by a pessimist. That’s the reason I called the book “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” because we need both.” Anticipate sunshine, but carry an umbrella and you should get along (make progress in a situation) just fine.

  • Why shouldn’t we shrug off (get rid of) “our grumpy (bad-tempered, irritable) cynicism”?
  • According to the article, why are both optimism and pessimism important for all of us?


  1. bunch
  2. staunch
  3. unsettling
  4. to dislodge
  5. trite
  6. silver lining
  7. to rake in
  8. to peddle
  9. ambivalent
  10. in actual fact
  11. surge
  12. to combat
  13. to shrug off
  14. grumpy
  15. to suss out
  16. at the root of
  17. fight-or-flight
  18. to get along

The article the lesson is based on is taken from “Cambridge English Proficiency 2 Student’s Book with Answers: Authentic Examination Papers from Cambridge English Language Assessment (CPE Practice Tests).”

The lesson plan is prepared by one of the teachers of our online school. Would you like to improve your English with her or some other brilliant teacher? Become our student and we’ll help your English skills get even more remarkable.

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