In Defence of Pessimism

Most people instruct us to adopt an optimistic outlook. Optimism, we are told, is what constitutes a ‘healthy’ and ‘well adjusted’ attitude towards life.

Yet, optimism ironically sets us up, in many ways, for disappointment. You are optimistic about getting the job. When you don’t, what happens? You are disappointed. Disappointment reigns because you set up an expectation about how things would turn out, and reality failed to deliver. If, instead, you had come into the interview with a hardy dose of pessimism, and had considered your success as slim, then your rejection email would have come as no surprise and stung significantly less. Pessimism does not mean you hate everything and consider yourself unlikely to succeed. It is rather an outlook that affirms the distance between what we want to happen and what often does.

There are many places where a degree of pessimism can be incredibly healthy. For instance, when you leave work and assume there will be bottleneck traffic or that you will get non-stop red lights on your way home; your pessimism leaves you well prepared when what you expected to happen did. And if there was no traffic or red lights, all the better!

Expect your friends to be late, the food you ordered to be cold, to be rejected by that alluring stranger at the bar, and for your plants to die. Not because you think life is a series of unfortunate events, but because you know that as wonderful as life is, it sometimes doesn’t go quite how we wish it to.

Pessimism, when used in proper measure, can be a useful correcting device. In adopting pessimism, we tell ourselves that life will not always go our way and in fact, might more often than not go against us.

The Stoics understood this well. Marcus Aurelius wrote,

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good and what is evil.

Perhaps this should be a mantra we should tell ourselves each day in preparation for a world that is sometimes harsh and often difficult. In the process, we will be better able to handle the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

1 Comments on “In Defence of Pessimism”

  1. Pessimism might simply be an emerged ideal of the consequence of depression, or events that lead to depression, there in leading to a neurotic prophesizing that proceeding events will continue to be depressing.

    Pessimism may be an intellectualization, cover or excuse for ignoring one’s own depression and pain.

    Focusing on the negatives of life can deprive oneself from appreciating the potential goods in ones life. Again I think this is just a consequence.

    Flipping around, someone who disregards all bad things and will only look at the good, being purely optimistic without cause, will risk avoiding accepting things that are experientially bad, which if ignored, could lead to an avoidance of a line of thinking [realistic thinking] that could prevent bad things from re-occurring or soften the severity of uncontrollably bad things [because bad things always happen].

    Both are useful tools for the mind. Having a maximalist view of either is probably woeful and unhealthy.

    Statements such as “I see life is hard, I’m being pessimistic”, is a very different statement and set of mind than to “I’m pessimistic, I see life is hard”.

    The former acknowledges a consequence of oneself, the latter acknowledges an ideal of oneself.


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