RODALE NEWS, LENOX, MA—When I lecture about how optimism and pessimism affect optimal aging, the optimists in the audience are delighted to hear me say that optimism will help them live healthier, happier, longer, and more successful lives. The pessimists, in contrast, get bummed out, fearing they’re doomed to poor health and an early death. I quickly reassure them that pessimism is not necessarily bad for you. In fact, the right kind of pessimism can help you be happier, healthier, and more successful.
THE DETAILS: In the past 20 years, there has been an avalanche of research confirming the emotional and medical benefits of optimism. Optimistic people tend to have better relationships, stronger immune systems, and fewer illnesses, and when they do get sick, they recover faster. And as optimism has become prized as an attitudinal wonder drug, pessimism has been relegated to the status of toxic waste. Pessimistic attitudes have been found to contribute to depression, illness, career failure, and relationship troubles. Clearly, it's important and healthy to be optimistic.
And yet, the line between optimism and pessimism isn't always as clear as you might expect. Most people don’t realize that all pessimism is not created equal—and that a certain kind of pessimism is actually good for you.
Think of it as like good fats (for example, olive oil) and bad fats (trans fats). You don't avoid all fats—in fact, this would be very bad for your health. Rather, you want to recognize the difference between the two types, and consciously choose the kind that’s healthy for you. The same applies to pessimism.
OK, what’s the difference? In a nutshell, being globally pessimistic about yourself, called dispositional pessimism, is very bad for you. On the other hand, being specifically pessimistic about a situation, called defensive pessimism, is in fact very likely to pay off for you.
Here’s how dispositional pessimism works. People with this type of pessimism tend to believe that when bad things happen, it was their fault, it will lead to other bad things happening to them, and bad things will keep happening to them forever. In other words, they believe that bad outcomes are personal, pervasive, and permanent. So, for example, say that a project you’re working on with a team of people goes badly. As a dispositional pessimist, you would conclude it was all your fault, that you will fail at everything you do, and that you’ll never again be successful at anything you do in life. Not surprisingly, chronic dispositional pessimism has been found to lead to hopelessness, helplessness, withdrawal, and depression.
Here’s how "good" pessimism, defensive pessimism, works. People who engage in this type of pessimism look critically at a situation, and adjust their behavior in response to a perceived threat or risk. Even if the situation could turn out positively, they prepare themselves for a potential problem, or avoid the situation entirely. So, defensive pessimists don’t buy volatile stocks or place risky bets. They drive defensively. They are good air-traffic controllers, health inspectors, and surgeons. They follow the old adage of "hope for the best, prepare for the worst."
Defensive pessimism leads to constructive action and has protective value. Defensive pessimism is actually optimistic, because it involves the belief that you can and will take constructive action to protect yourself. As one of my clients told me, “I’m a lawyer. I always expect the worst, and that’s why I’m successful. My clients pay me to be pessimistic, anticipate what could go wrong, and protect them from it.”
Published on: October 11, 2010