Positive Pessimism

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Wait a minute, you're thinking, how can anyone be a  positive pessimist?  Well, okay I'm playing with words a little, but the point I want to make in this post is that certain kinds of pessimism actually seem to work on our behalf rather than against us.

Pessimism is often considered a state of mind that smooth's the path to depression. It's a thought process usually contrasted with optimism and we're informed (correctly I think) that  optimists  tend to be resilient and are therefore at less risk of depression. Optimism has a lot going for it in terms of health, performance, success and general satisfaction with life. However critics are often keen to point out that overly optimistic people have a distorted view of things and can sometimes underestimate the risks associated with certain courses of action. Think of anything from fast driving to smoking, drug taking, unprotected casual sex and you begin to build a picture.

Just because you're something of a glass half full person isn't necessarily a bad thing. Pessimism is certainly a form of thinking that tips towards the negative and  challenging negative thinking  is a key feature of therapy for depression. Pessimists are more likely to highlight the potential problems associated with a course of action. If things actually do go wrong they tend to select these as examples that reinforce their pessimism while conveniently overlooking the times they were wrong. But what about people in the middle ground? Sure, there are extreme optimists and pessimists but there are also people who affected in ways that are milder.

When you step outside do you tend to grab an umbrella in case it might rain? Nobody would think much of it if you did, but you might be showing signs of pessimism, especially if the forecast said there was very little chance of rain. What about following a new recipe or maybe preparing to give a presentation? Do you go over and over it to make sure you won't make mistakes? Again, one person's version of being properly prepared could be construed as mild pessimism. Why? Well, these examples are defenses that reduce anxieties about things going wrong. In their own modest way they highlight that we're thinking in terms of things going wrong as opposed to assuming everything will be fine.

In this regard I think we have to accept the fact that pessimism of this sort can be a real asset. For example, we want to know our cars are safe. We are reassured to know they have been engineered in ways that have assumed the worst and that we're not driving a death trap. Hard dedicated work is a way of avoiding failure as much as it is of achieving success. So, pessimism can be a very practical and safe form of behavior. Where it goes wrong is when it becomes personal, enduring and prevalent.

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