“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” – James Branch Cabell
People have long argued over pessimism. They ask “Is pessimism good / bad/ or is it just realism?” It’s long been believed that happiness and optimism are related, and for obvious reason. If we’re thinking happy thoughts surely we will feel happy. Many people subscribe to this belief, thinking that the happier they make themselves think the happier they’ll feel. And then on the other side of the coin you get the “realists” who generally poo-hoo the positivity movement.
The realists don’t assume the best. They believe that being entirely realistic is what matters. They want to be aware of the potential pitfalls in everything, and will actively go about finding the negative side of thinks. They force pessimism on themselves.
Research conducted by Julie Norem, professor at Wellesely College psychology, revealed that many people live by defensive pessimism. She states that when defensive pessimists feel anxious about something they set low expectations. They then try to figure out what might go wrong. They do this so that they can be aware of the dangers and the avoid them.
Lots of people are afraid of disappointment—they don’t want to make themselves expect something good only to later be let down and disappointed. So it is that I might say to myself that absolutely no one will ever read this article I’m writing right now. That’s defensive pessimism. I’m preventing myself from thinking that millions of people may read this, because I don’t want to end up being bitterly disappointed. But does my pessimism help me, or does it just make me feel depressed?@
Norem went on to write an entire book on this subject: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. She reasoned that defensive pessimism is actually a good thing.
But hang on, optimism is the best mentality, isn’t it? Doesn’t pessimism lead to anxiety, depression and unhappiness?
The thing is, when we anticipate the bad times we take steps to avoid them. This prevents them from ever actually happening. Let’s say you’re a smoker. You’re optimistic about smoking You don’t believe it will ever give you cancer. That’s optimism, right? But it negates the possibility that smoking actually will cause cancer. A defensive pessimist would face the possibility of cancer and do everything to go about preventing themselves from getting cancer.
Worrying is not without reason. We’ve evolved to worry for a reason. Because if we can foresee problems we can combat them.
But does this mean that pessimism is a good thing then?
No, not really, to be completely honest. Being overly pessimistic and only thinking of the negative quite likely will lead to anxiety, stress and depression. But being blindly optimistic is like jumping off a building because you believe you can fly.
The right way to manage pessimism and optimism is with balance. We must be aware of the possible problems so that we can overcome them. But we then must focus on the overcoming of those problems. The right attitude with our smoking example is to say “Smoking might kill me [pessimism], so I will stop, and in stopping I will become healthy [optimism].” The right way is to be aware of the negative, and guide around it towards the positive. Pessimism and optimism are equally important. It’s vital to have both in the right amount.