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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