Feeling gloomy about the future? No need to cheer up: There’s an upside to negativity.
In recent years, naysayers have begun to challenge the glass-half-full positivity championed by self-help gurus, motivational speakers and hopeful politicians. Riding the backlash, a growing number of enthusiastically pessimistic books have emerged, such as Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, celebrated U.S. college basketball coach Bob Knight’s newest title, The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.
Research does link negative thinking to a host of problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression, but most of us could benefit from a healthy dose of pessimism too. “Even though there is some evidence of the benefits of optimism, there’s also lots of good reasons for pessimism,” says Elaine Fox, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Essex in England.
Pessimism can prevent people from becoming too confident and overly trusting. Some research suggests that excessive optimism can thwart emergency-preparedness efforts and can cause family members of the critically ill to be unrealistically hopeful, which could affect their decisions about a patient’s care.
A German study last month revealed that older adults who held a dim view of their futures lived longer and healthier lives than those who had rosy outlooks. In an e-mail, researcher Frieder Lang of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg explained that older adults with a bleaker outlook may be more cautious and thus adopt a healthier lifestyle.
“Another possible explanation,” he suggested, “is that modest, defensive expectations of what the future may bring may protect the older person when health losses occur, and thus, help older adults to feel more satisfied with their current life.” In other words, by predicting the worst, their reality seemed not so bad by comparison.
But Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and an expert on the psychology of optimism and pessimism, warns that there is no definitive answer as to who is better off: the Pollyannas or the Debbie Downers of the world.
“There’s no automatic or magical association between optimism and pessimism … and any outcome. It really depends on how that perspective leads you to act or not act in a given situation,” she says, noting that the debate between optimism versus pessimism tends to be oversimplified, “like if you’re optimistic, these good things will happen, and if you’re pessimistic, these bad things will happen, or vice versa.”
Instead, the best kind of pessimism may be “defensive pessimism,” a term that Norem and her colleague Nancy Cantor coined back in the 1980s.
Individuals tend to use defensive pessimism when they are anxious about a particular situation; they set low expectations and think about all the possible things that could go wrong. By considering the specific ways that an anticipated situation could go awry, Norem explains, people can actively prepare themselves and prevent disaster.
“The basic finding that we’ve shown over and over in different contexts in our research is that people who are anxious do better when they use defensive pessimism than when they try to be optimistic,” she says, noting that optimism does little to address anxiety.
Thus, she says, even if you talk yourself into being upbeat and cheerful, you could still be crippled by anxiety when actually faced with the situation you have been dreading.
Yet people have tended to neglect the upsides to pessimism, in part because optimism seems, well … nicer.
“It just feels better to be optimistic than it does to be pessimistic,” Norem says, noting that messages that encourage us to improve our mood often seem reassuring. “We just have this halo around positive things.”
A 2009 study from the University of Kansas, based on data from the Gallup World Poll, found that people are overwhelmingly optimistic, regardless of where they live. Of the more than 150,000 adults surveyed from more than 140 countries, nearly 90 per cent anticipated their lives would be as good or better five years on.
Even though it is easier to incite negative thoughts than it is to encourage people to adopt an optimistic mindset, optimism tends to be our default mode, says Fox, whose book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook, was released last year.
“If you ask people, ‘What are the chances of good things happening to you – that you’ll have a really good marriage, or you’ll win the lottery?’ people actually overestimate [their] chances,” she says. “Likewise, if you ask people, ‘What do you think are the chances that you’ll have a serious illness in your life, or of someone close to you dying?’ people will actually underestimate those things.”
Fox emphasizes that the importance of pessimism shouldn’t be ignored. Pessimism stems from our fear system, which is critical for our survival, she says. Some of the most effective optimists, according to Fox, are “realistic optimists,” individuals who are able to identify what is possible while anticipating and accepting their restrictions and possible dangers.
“It’s not about being a blind optimist, sticking your head in the sand and thinking everything is going to come out perfectly,” she says. “We need pessimism and optimism.... We absolutely need both sides of ourselves.”
How to be a better pessimist
If you can come up with concrete things that can go wrong, you can identify clear steps to address them, says psychologist Julie Norem. But catastrophizing and thinking in sweepingly negative terms can be overwhelming.
Worry, then worry some more
If you start thinking things are going to end up in disaster, don’t stop there. Keep thinking of what and how things could go wrong. This train of thought will eventually lead to thinking of preventative measures.
All that hand-wringing and fretting expends a lot of energy, Norem says. Do not bother wasting that energy on trivial matters. Focus and restrict your pessimism to important things.
Keep your pessimism to yourself
“Other people don’t necessarily like to be around somebody who is pessimistic,” Norem says. While you may want to vent to family and friends, keep it to a minimum “because it’s depressing for them and they feel obligated to cheer you up,” she advises.