The Power of Pessimism: Science Reveals the Hidden Virtues in Negative Thinking

These days, you don’t real­ly hear many peo­ple mak­ing the case for pes­simism. Quite the con­trary, pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy is now en vogue. And its founder, Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Mar­tin Selig­man, has writ­ten best­sellers with titles like Learned Opti­mism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. But maybe, as Alain de Bot­ton sug­gests above, there’s an argu­ment to be made for pes­simism – for hav­ing a sober, if not neg­a­tive, out­look on life. And maybe there’s sci­ence that val­i­dates that point of view.

This sec­ond video, cre­at­ed by New York Mag­a­zine, sum­ma­rizes the research of NYU pro­fes­sor Gabriele Oet­tin­gen, attribut­ing to her the belief that “pes­simism can be a bet­ter moti­va­tor for achiev­ing goals than opti­mism,” see­ing that opti­mism tends to lull us into com­pla­cen­cy and slack­en our desire to achieve impor­tant per­son­al goals, like los­ing weight.

Cou­ple that with this: a 2013 study released in Psy­chol­o­gy and Aging, a jour­nal pub­lished by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion (APA), con­clud­ed that “Old­er peo­ple who have low expec­ta­tions for a sat­is­fy­ing future may be more like­ly to live longer, health­i­er lives than those who see brighter days ahead.” The lead author of the study Frieder R. Lang, PhD, added: “Our find­ings revealed that being over­ly opti­mistic in pre­dict­ing a bet­ter future was asso­ci­at­ed with a greater risk of dis­abil­i­ty and death with­in the fol­low­ing decade.” “Pes­simism about the future,” it seems, “may encour­age peo­ple to live more care­ful­ly, tak­ing health and safe­ty pre­cau­tions” that sun­ny opti­mists might not oth­er­wise take.

I should add this caveat: sci­en­tists don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly find virtue in pure, unadul­ter­at­ed pes­simism. Rather, they find ben­e­fits in what they call “defen­sive pes­simism.” This is a strat­e­gy, as sum­ma­rized by The Wall Street Jour­nal, where peo­ple “low­er their expec­ta­tions and think through all the pos­si­ble neg­a­tives that could hap­pen in order to avoid them.” Frieder R. Lang, author of the Psy­chol­o­gy & Aging study men­tioned above, told WSJ, “Those who are defen­sive­ly pes­simistic about their future may be more like­ly to invest in prepara­to­ry or pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures, where­as we expect that opti­mists will not be think­ing about those things.” Sim­i­lar virtues might be attrib­uted to “defen­sive opti­mism,” but we’ll have to wait and see what the inevitable sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies have to say about that.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

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