There is a cult of “positivity” that rules the world. Through countless self-help books, banal social media slogans, and WhatsApp hello messages, this cult will have you believe that “Think Positive” is the magic pill for mental health. Pop one to instantly make that glass half empty half full and all around you bright and sunny.
But isn’t it painful to seem continually optimistic even when you’re anxious and bogged down? And what about those of us who naturally take a more cautious view of the world? When things are very clearly not going well, can we really activate that “be optimistic” button and feel good?
Turns out, practically, physiologically, and psychologically, pessimism isn’t always the bad guy popular culture claims to be. And, in more than one way, certain forms of pessimism can also work to our advantage.
The case of constructive pessimism
First of all, a positive attitude is great. We all love the happy people around us. The melancholics are short. And our lived experience tells us that life is easier when you are hopeful and jovial. Additionally, there is a lot of research suggesting that optimism has many health benefits. Studies have shown that optimistic people are less prone to heart disease, strokes and cancer. So it’s no wonder that there is relentless social pressure on us to be eternal optimists. This is where the problem lies.
Experts believe our moods and views are part of an optimism-pessimism spectrum. On opposite ends of this spectrum are the pure optimists, who can be detached from reality, and the pure pessimists, who can be unhappy, according to Dr. Elizabeth Scott, award-winning author and blogger on stress management and wellness. emotional.
While purists are a small minority, the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And while, generally, most of us are optimistic about some areas of our lives and not others, our natural state of being leans towards one of the two ends of the spectrum, writes Dr Scott in a medically revised article.
So, in the words of Dr Alok V Kulkarni, a senior consultant psychiatrist at a Hubli-based mental health institute, “optimism, while desirable, is not the default state of mind for everyone.” . It depends on various factors – birth traits, stable upbringing, positive life events, sense of security, and positive feelings about self-esteem, self-image, self-esteem and self-identity – says Dr Kulkarni. So, it follows that the majority of people are either generally optimistic or generally pessimistic due to their birth traits and the type of life they have had from infancy through adolescence and youth.
Most importantly, “it is not possible to fundamentally change a person,” says Dr Raghu K, chief psychiatrist at a multi-specialty hospital based in Bengaluru. According to him, there is a socio-cultural dimension in the way we think about optimism and pessimism. “Nothing is waste in nature,” he says. If a particular trait exists, then it has its uses in our life and survival. But how we view or rank the trait – positive or negative, good or bad – is only a social construct. Simply put, the company has its own way of creating a narrative. If he views a particular trait favorably, then anyone who exhibits that trait is referred to as a positive personality, and vice versa.
Against the backdrop of pessimism, we know this has been a useful trait throughout our evolution, because being nervous, anxious, and worried about things that might go wrong has kept us alive. But most modern societies, including our own, view pessimism as a negative emotion. And so those of us who are not naturally optimists are desperate to deny and stifle our pessimistic instincts, even though the struggle to become optimistic is sometimes more painful than being a pessimist.
The irony here is that the tendency to force positivity and resist negativity can actually hurt the truly anxious. Psychologist and writer Dr. Douglas LaBier says mental health and well-being comes from embracing “bad feelings” and not pushing them away. He says that while meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices can help us deal with negativity, the process must begin with accepting our so-called negative emotions.
So, to sum it up in Dr. Raghu’s words, “if you are born with a particular trait, you must embrace it and regard it as your strength”. And this also applies to pessimism.
How to accept pessimism
That’s not to say that we should all proactively develop a more pessimistic outlook on life. But if we are naturally inclined to have a pessimistic view, how can we use this trait as a strength?
Some of the benefits of having a pessimistic outlook are intrinsic to the way these personalities think and behave. More often than not, they expect negative results and are pleasantly surprised when things go well. So it’s no surprise that a 2013 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality shows that people with negative outlooks are better than their more optimistic peers when it comes to building safety nets, to prepare (practically and emotionally) for bad situations, and hold on to their worldview in crises. We can also assume that since pessimists focus on detecting obstacles in their path, they are better able to assess risks and avoid them.
Research indicates that a pessimist’s chronic tendency to have negative expectations (dispositional pessimism in psychologist parlance) can also be a big advantage, especially in the relationship arena.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concludes that sometimes too much optimism can be a handicap in a marriage or relationship because it prevents couples from proactively engaging in problem solving. Conversely, couples who take a more cautious approach to their relationship tend to experience more long-term success and satisfaction, as they start out with lower expectations about each other’s ability to cope and, therefore, to make more efforts.
There is also a way to use pessimism as a strategy for dealing with anxiety and dealing with difficult real life situations. Psychologists call this “defensive pessimism,” and it is based on the fact that people with negative outlooks tend to imagine worst-case scenarios over and over and become anxious. However, practitioners of defensive pessimism exploit this trait to perform better than they would by thinking positively.
When a defensive pessimist begins to feel anxious about an event or situation, they first drastically lower their expectations, and then think vividly and specifically about all the things that could go wrong. In the process, she is able to create a plan of action to deal with any potential setbacks. To better understand, think about an upcoming public speaking event that is making you nervous. Using the principles of defensive pessimism, start by telling yourself it’s going to be a disaster. Then imagine in detail all the worst-case scenarios: you forget a key data point, you stumble on the microphone wire, etc.
Seeing this disaster unfold in your mind, you prepare to take concrete mitigating action – carry a landmark card with the data point, ask the organizers for a wireless microphone, and more. Thus, you feel more in control and therefore less anxious.
Best of all, of course, you are now very well prepared, better prepared than you would be if you thought the event would go well.
Does Pessimism Really Affect Your Health? Ask the Japanese
Everyone and their aunt believe that optimists are healthier than pessimists. The reality is, for every study that claims the health benefits of optimism, there is one that shows the longer life expectancies of pessimists. Finnish study links pessimism to heart disease, but UK study finds no link between positivity and longevity. Thus, contrary to popular perception, the scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of optimism or the detrimental effects of pessimism is inconclusive, contradictory and controversial.
A 2017 study comparing the adult populations of America and Japan is a good reference in this context. Entitled “Linking Positive Affect to Blood Lipids: A Cultural Perspective,” the study found that Americans were more likely to have healthier cholesterol levels and less likely to be overweight if they were optimistic. But no such connection could be found for the Japanese. In East Asian cultures, such as Japan, positive emotions are not viewed favorably and are seen as a distraction. But paradoxically, the Japanese are known to lead long and healthy lives. So, if pessimism is unhealthy, what explains the Japanese paradox?
It is impossible to find the exact cause and effect in studies like this. But look at it with a socio-cultural lens and the answer seems clear. In American society optimism is a strongly reinforced value while in Japan the cultural emphasis is on living with a cautious attitude. So, it may not be optimism or pessimism, but our ability to live in tune with the dominant culture that makes us healthy or unhealthy.
The worst is yet to come?
You can trust the Swedes to be the first to greet anything to the contrary. This is also true for the happy pessimism which is gaining a lot of space in Sweden. Battling the pressure to relentlessly be seen as positive, many Swedes encourage a growing cult that promotes healthy negative thinking. In fact, a course titled “Negative Thinking: It Won’t Get Any Better Than This” by practical philosopher and psychologist Ida Hallgren ran out of applications in a day.
Psychologist and comedian Mattias Lundberg, who has co-authored a book on happy pessimism, writes that there’s no denying the power of optimism, but the self-help industry has “twisted the term.”
“Unlimited positivity has in a way become a necessary condition for happiness. And in this hypothesis could lie a great danger”, he would have declared in an article published in a large Swedish newspaper.
Hallgren’s course, by the way, is built around three phases of pessimism. It begins with the Greek Stoics, continues through to 19th century pessimism “guru” Arthur Schopenhauer and ends with Buddhism. Hallgren explains that the negative thinking movement is about recognizing reality, “even the ugliest of things,” not expecting the worst in life.