The Benefits Of Pessimism

The Benefits Of Pessimism

Generally speaking, most of us try to be optimistic whenever possible, because it makes life a little easier to cope with if you assume everything will work out. Pessimism has its benefits though, and The Wall Street Journal highlights a few of them.

Picture: Kalyan Chakravarthy/Flickr

There’s a more than just one type of optimist or pessimist. Here’s a quick breakdown of a few different types, keeping in mind that most of us tend to do a little bit of each of these:

  • Explanatory optimism: This style of optimism links negative events to external causes that will get better over time.
  • Explanatory pessimism: Links bad things to their own faults or external causes that won’t ever change.
  • Strategic optimism: This style of optimism doesn’t worry about a potentially stressful event and assumes things will just work out. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t their fault.
  • Strategic pessimism: This style of pessimism uses strategies to lower expectations and decrease anxiety by thinking through all the negative outcomes and planning for them.
  • Optimism bias: We’ve talked about the optimism bias before. It’s essentially the tendency to think that you’re better at something than everyone else and that good things are more likely to happen to you.
  • Pessimistic bias: This is the tendency to think that you’re worse at things that other people and you tend to expect few good things to happen to you.

Pessimism sounds like a bummer, but it has its own unique set of benefits. The Wall Street Journal explains:

“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,” said Dr. Lang, who noted the study controlled for factors such as health and finances, but didn’t prove causality…

A study, published last year in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, evaluated the brain response of 16 older adults when processing fearful faces. People with greater optimism had reduced activity in the parts of the brain that process emotional stimuli. “Being less bothered by stresses can help in coping,” said Dr. Jeste, who led the study. “On the other hand, a nonchalant attitude to dangers can leave the person poorly prepared to deal with a risky situation when it arises…”

Optimism can be a disadvantage in stressful conditions. A 2011 study involving 250 couples in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that overly optimistic people coped worse with stress.

Most of the above linked studies show correlation rather than causation, but the point is less about the stats and more about how the line between pessimism and optimism isn’t as simple as we’d like to think. It’s good to strike a balance between the two, but being pessimistic now and again certainly isn’t as bad a thing as people make it out to be. Just don’t go too far.

The Perfect Dose of Pessimism [The Wall Street Journal]

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