Pessimism gets a bad rap, but in reality, the negative-leaning outlook can serve some important functions. These include everything from helping us process anger, to entering a new relationship with realistic expectations, to setting us up to accomplish our goals. And, according to performance expert Steven Kotler — author of The Art of Impossible and founder and executive director of the Flow Research Collective — we tend to get more pessimistic as we age.
In a recent discussion on the Mindbodygreen podcast, Kotler explains why this isn’t always a bad thing, noting that our increased pessimism as we age is more of a gradual shift from a “goal mindset” to a “fear mindset.”
“Everything we see and encounter is really shaped by two things: our fears or our goals,” he says on the podcast. Here’s why that happens, and how we can take control of our age-related pessimism.
Why do we get more pessimistic as we get older?
There’s a reason most people go from having a goal mindset to a fear mindset, Kotler explains. This is because as we age, the stakes become higher for each decision we have to make — whether it’s because we have to consider a partner, family responsibilities or a career. As a result, safety and security may carry more weight than setting or accomplishing goals.
There’s research to back this up, demonstrating that older adults are more risk-averse than younger people. Of course, that isn’t a bad thing, and Kotler notes that this makes sense as “the things you care about start to mount.” But that’s not the only outcome of increased pessimism as you age: it can also make you reach a point where fear of failure causes you to stop making life goals entirely.
How to keep our pessimism in check as we age
While making decisions taking into account the perceived, potential or actual risk of something makes sense, Kotler sees it as a problem when it gets to the point where we no longer set goals for ourselves at all. This can happen when someone reaches some or all of the arbitrary societal milestones, like getting married, having a family, buying a house, and so on. Here’s how Kotler puts it:
“We hit our early thresholds, and we’ve stopped setting goals. As a result, the system goes, ‘Well, if you don’t have any more goals, I want to keep you safe and help you survive.’”
Fortunately, there’s a way around this: keep making long-term goals for yourself. Setting daily goals is a good idea, but to get a handle on this particular aspect of pessimism, Kotler says that making tangible and specific plans to help you accomplish a realistic long-term goal is a good way to balance your need with security with your ambition.