Is Pessimism Always Bad?
Updated: Feb 20
“Hope for the best BUT prepare for the worst.” Have you ever said this to yourself? Maybe a lot? Do you tend to feel surprised when things work out for you? Or maybe you feel more content to stick with the status quo rather than change things because you assume things won’t work out.
Optimists tend to win the day in our society, and they are viewed as the “ideal” when it comes to navigating mental, physical, emotional and even relationship health. Pessimists are often viewed as the “Debbie Downer” of the bunch- cynical, negative, suspicious … of optimists in particular.
Is pessimism really all that bad? Is optimism really all that helpful or adaptive? Is it possible that a healthy dose of pessimism has its strengths and value too?
Turns out, it does! It can help us manage our experience of anxiety more effectively by providing some sense of control in uncontrollable circumstances. Pessimism also helps us better prepare for difficult situations and possibly avoid certain risks that optimists might overlook or ignore. It’s also been shown that a correlation exists between negative expectations related to future life satisfaction and positive health and longevity for adults. How’s that for irony? The worse you expect your life to be down the road, the longer you get to live!
Here are some other unexpected benefits of being a pessimist:
1. Pessimists are realists. The truth is the world is not always kind. Since pessimists already operate from this assumption, they are able to not only anticipate this outcome, but also buffer themselves from the emotional blow of this difficult truth.
2. Pessimists are better problem-solvers because they anticipate problems. Since pessimists typically expect that things will go wrong, they are able to plan for more challenges others may overlook. As a result, they are more likely to have built-in safety nets to help them manage.
3. Pessimists are open to both sides of the emotional coin. Meaning, while pessimists are more likely to experience increased negative affect than an optimist, it does not necessarily mean they experience less positive affect. This can help them strike a healthy emotional balance, such that they are able to recognize and experience both the negatives and positives in life, even if they tend to gravitate toward the negative more often.
4. Since pessimists tend to set expectations low and anticipate that things will go poorly, they can also be more oriented toward making change or improvements in their life. This is known as “defensive pessimism,” a cognitive strategy that can actually help manage one’s experience of anxiety related to uncontrollable events.
However, if pessimism is combined with a sense of hopelessness, it can lead to learned helplessness in which a person does nothing to change their circumstance because they think “what’s the point?” This outlook tends to lead to depression and often benefits from seeking professional help.
5. Pessimists are often more equipped to tolerate negative emotions because they are more familiar with them. They may be more likely to find acceptance of the negative emotions, rather than expecting or needing them to go away. This acceptance is what allows them to engage in active problem-solving in order to continue moving toward their goals despite the negative emotion. They do not deny it or push it away, they tend to move right through it.
The reality is we are all somewhere in the middle along this continuum. Finding more optimism and more pessimism can help us strike a healthy balance whereby we can reap the benefits of both worlds in a healthy way.
Here are some strategies to try and strike this balance:
1. Hope for the best AND prepare for the worst: This approach really does provide the “best” of both worlds in that it allows one to maintain a healthy perspective both in terms of what they hope to have happen, as well as acknowledging and preparing for possibility that it may not.
2. Cultivate gratitude: I am a HUGE proponent of practice gratitude, not because it’s become the trendy thing to do, but more so because it really does work. By taking stock of your “wins” from the day you are re-directing your brain to pay attention to your strengths and resources. The more practiced this is, the more readily you can draw from them when you find yourself under stress and in difficult circumstances.
3. This too shall pass: If you are generally an optimist and are experiencing unhappiness as the result of a recent setback, keeping in mind that the negative circumstance will not last as long as you think can be helpful.
Same is true for pessimists. Since pessimists tend to be a little less happy than optimists anyway, they may need more motivation to make a change toward a positive viewpoint. Enduring a setback can be one way that can help them do this. Setbacks, viewed from a healthy, growth-oriented POV, can motivate one to strive to learn to be more optimistic. What a pessimistic way to view this turn of events!
Overall, the research informs us that optimism is still the ultimate winner when it comes to mental and emotional health, as well as resilience. However, there is a place for healthy pessimism, even though it’s not typically recommended to be the pervasive norm for folks (sorry pessimists - but you knew it was going to end this way, right?).