Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How Much Pessimism Is Good for You?

Is optimism an unalloyed good? If you are persuaded that things will always turn out for the best are you more likely to ignore dangers, and thus, be unprepared when they arrive.

How much pessimism should you entertain? Psychologists, Sumathi Reddy reminds us, tend to think that you do better in life when you are more optimistic. Positive psychology, a positive attitude, a can-do spirit will move you forward in ways that a grim pessimism will not.

Faced with the relentless pessimism of Freudian theory psychologists have been trying to show their patients a way out of the maelstrom.

But, an antidote is still nothing more than an antidote. It is a counterweight to balance out one’s pessimistic tendencies, especially those that were inculcated by negative psychology.

Just because negative thinking is self-defeating—by definition—that does not mean that positive thinking, in and of itself will lead to happiness.

Even if we accept that a positive attitude is better and more productive, we now see studies showing that pessimists tend to live longer than optimists. Perhaps, the overly optimistic among us come to believe that they are bulletproof. Thus, they take more needless risks and end up with a shorter life span.

After all, an individual who is preparing for a day at the beach or even for a business presentation should spend some of his time thinking about what can go wrong. If he does not, he will be unprepared.

But, if he obsesses about negativity and only sees the dark side he will be dragging everyone down. If your presentation is infused with an attitude that prepares you for rejection it will be rejected. Most people do not like to disappoint.

It’s one thing to prepare for all eventualities; it’s quite another to believe that everything will always be for the worst.

So, psychologists are trying to figure out how much of a good thing is a bad thing or how much of a bad thing is a good thing.

Some feel that the proper ratio of optimism to pessimism should be 80% to 20%. Others prefer 70% to 30%.

At the least, they recognize that the problem lies in the extremes. Thus, they are searching for the mean.

Finally, one suspects that the terms optimism and pessimism leave something to be desired.

How much of what is called optimism really involves confidence? How much confidence is grounded in a record of past achievements and how much of it is built on air?

How much of what is called pessimism really involves despair, the sense that nothing will ever turn out right and thus that the best course is to retreat and conserve one’s energy.

In principle, a confident individual might consider all the ways his new marketing plan can go wrong… because he wants it to succeed and is confident that he can work out the problems before it is implemented.

This differs starkly from the “confident” person, brimming with mindless self-esteem who chooses not to do the extra work because he believes that divine intervention will make it all turn out for the best.

A pessimist might decide not to do the extra work because he believes that it will be to no avail. In that way, he will be acting as did the overly confident person who was waiting for a deus ex machina to save him.


Ares Olympus said...

re: How much of what is called pessimism really involves despair, the sense that nothing will ever turn out right and thus that the best course is to retreat and conserve one’s energy.

I'd agree despair ought to be separated from pessimism. Despair is a feeling of certainty that you know outcomes without the will to find out if you're right.

The great Winston Churchill is (probably falsely) quoted to have said:
"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

Or we can go to Antonio Gramsci's middle way:
"I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will."

And Kipling said in his poem if:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

What these quotes means to me is that we can too easily generalize experience as a pattern, success or failure, so we can be vulnerable to not trying when we think we can't success, or not pausing and falling into a trap when we expect we can't fail.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember where I read it, but I did read somewhere that pessimism is an asset in two professions: law and actuarial work. Otherwise, it is a detriment. Probably some Seligman or Kahneman research, but it slips my memory.

Regardless, it makes sense. When the nature of the game risks someone trying to cleverly screw you, I'm sure it is an advantage. Doesn't make for happy living, though, especially if you bring it home.

I remember growing up at the dinner table with my lawyer father and him needling everything I said. Of course that's my experience and it has advantages, but I'd say it's created more fears in me than are necessary. I probably spend an inordinate time double-checking my work and questioning the motivations and incentives of the person on the other side. But hey, that's life.