The Ups of the Downside: The Risks and Surprising Benefits of Pessimism
As it turns out, pessimism may not be such a negative thing after all.
Keep your chin up. Stay positive. Look on the bright side.
As it turns out, this advice may be one-sided.
While having a positive outlook is generally touted as a desirable trait, the reality is that pessimistic thinking serves an important purpose. It may even offer a host of benefits, from health to general quality of life.
It may come as a surprise to hear that having an optimistic outlook may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Move over, positive thinking! Read on to get the upside of negative thinking.
What Is Pessimism?
So what is pessimism, exactly? It’s the tendency to see the worst in things or believe the worst will happen. It’s often characterized by a lack of confidence in the future.
The classic picture of a pessimistic disposition might best be illustrated by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
This gloomy, somber donkey never expects anything good to happen to him, something that tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On top of that, he’s not prone to having much fun.
Simply put by the American Psychological Association, pessimism is an attitude that things are likely to go wrong.
Beyond a pessimistic attitude, there are other forms of pessimism as well as negative thinking, like:
- negativity bias
- defensive pessimism
- philosophical pessimism
Negativity bias is the natural evolutionary tendency all humans have to emphasize negative memories or experiences over positive ones. This is actually an adaptive trait that arises out of the need for protection.
For instance, a toddler who places their hand on a hot stove will remember the burn more than they’ll remember the details of the stovetop or what was cooking in the pan.
This is a useful trait, especially in survival circumstances, but it can become exaggerated and lead to overcautious behavior that looks and feels like pessimism.
Defensive pessimism is using pessimism as a strategy to protect against future events. In this sense, it’s a “positive” form of pessimism.
It involves anticipating a negative outcome, worst-case scenario, or possible obstacles and strategizing ways to overcome them. It’s often used as a way to calm anxiety and prepare for an event like a musical performance, sports competition, or public speaking.
A defensive pessimist may feel more prepared, as if they’ve already thought of everything and planned accordingly. Because of this, being defensively pessimistic can have its advantages.
Philosophical pessimism is less of an attitude and more of a worldview. It involves a negative outlook on life, one that recognizes life is hard, generally involves more pain than pleasure, and that existence is fundamentally meaningless.
While it may sound bleak, philosophical pessimism doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with a pessimistic attitude. It may actually involve a very life-affirming response.
For instance, in the face of meaninglessness, a philosophical pessimist may choose to create their own meaning through creativity and the simple joys of life.
In this sense, the philosophical pessimist is responding to their belief in the basic meaninglessness of existence with a positive outlook.
Benefits of Pessimism
While hanging out with the Eeyores of the world may not sound all that appealing, there are actually plenty of benefits to pessimism.
Pessimists tend to be more prepared, as they’ve likely thought through the negative scenarios that might arise in a given situation and adjusted course accordingly.
As a result, pessimistic thinkers are more likely to have the necessary tools and strategies on hand to quickly pivot when things go wrong.
On the other hand, more optimistic thinking may not account for those same obstacles and pitfalls.
Not easily duped
By the same token, pessimistic thinkers are less easily swindled than their optimistic counterparts.
Those who see the world with rosy-colored glasses are more likely to trust those they shouldn’t, putting themselves in a position to be “had.”
Pessimists tend to be more skeptical, less forthright, and do a lot more research before they put their confidence in a person, a purchase, or a situation that might lead to harm.
A pessimist is less likely to volunteer sensitive information, give a handout to someone they perceive as a shady character, or agree to a deal that seems too good to be true.
Pessimists generally survey all the facts—often multiple times—before they put their hat in the ring. This can lead to fewer unexpected results, especially scams.
Pleasantly surprised when good things happen
A less obvious benefit of pessimism is that negative thinking can set you up to be pleasantly surprised when things don’t go south.
If you’re always expecting rain, a sunny day can feel like an unforeseen gift. By setting their expectations low, those who expect negative outcomes are bracing themselves for what they see as inevitable.
This can make difficult circumstances less surprising or challenging. On the other hand, it may make advantageous events an unexpected cause for celebration, leading to positive emotions.
Surprisingly, there may actually be health benefits to pessimism.
According to a 2014 study, underestimating future life satisfaction was correlated with positive health outcomes in older adults.
Another benefit of defensive pessimism, according to a 2020 review, is it lends itself to making friends.
The review notes that defensive pessimism can enhance interpersonal communication.
This is because pessimistic thinkers tend to consider others’ reactions and respect their opinions.
Risks of Pessimism
Although pessimism has some surprising upsides, it still comes with its share of risks.
For instance, too much pessimism can easily devolve into ruminating. Instead of responsible forethought and planning, a pessimist can succumb to the trap of rumination, or repetitive overthinking.
While a little bit of caution can lead to preparedness, rumination can become a downward spiral of negativity that causes emotional distress. According to a 2012 study, rumination on pain may lead to symptom magnification as well as poorer clinical outcomes.
It can even lead to catastrophizing, one of several cognitive distortions that fuel negative thinking.
Lack of resilience/coping skills
While pessimism may lead to preparedness, it can also result in a lack of resilience and adaptability.
For instance, those who expect the worst may be hesitant to make changes, take useful risks, or resist stepping outside of their comfort zones.
When inevitable change does happen, pessimistic thinkers may overspend their energy on contingency plans rather than respond to the situation in real-time.
This can result in unnecessary detours that distract from the matter at hand. It can also lead the pessimist to overlook positive opportunities simply because they’re new and different.
One of the key hallmarks of resilience is the ability to adapt to change, and pessimistic thinkers may be somewhat stuck in their ways as a way of avoiding risks, challenges, and confrontation.
When the unknown is seen in a negative light, it’s more difficult to see opportunity knocking.
Increased stress, anxiety, and depression
According to the 2012 study mentioned above, rumination—a hallmark of pessimism—can worsen symptoms of mental health conditions like:
- alcohol use disorder
- generalized anxiety disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- obsessive compulsive disorder
- posttraumatic stress disorder
- bulimia nervosa
- other mood disorders
Negative health outcomes
According to the same study, rumination typically results in an intensification of pain symptoms as well as poorer clinical outcomes. It also has a negative effect on resting and ambulatory blood pressure, largely because mental stress often leads to biological stress.
In a 2021 review, the absence of pessimism (but not the presence of optimism) was more strongly related to positive health outcomes. This indicates that too much pessimism can actually be detrimental to health.
A 2018 study of 2,457 cancer survivors similarly found that participants with a pessimistic outlook toward their disease experienced lower quality of life and higher mortality rates than their optimistic counterparts.
It turns out positive thinking may still have some advantages in contrast to an overly negative perspective.
How to Overcome Pessimism
While pessimistic thinking may seem like a fundamental personality trait, it is possible to change your outlook.
Stay open to possibilities
One major way to reduce pessimism is to develop flexibility.
According to a 2021 study, psychological flexibility was correlated with lower stress levels and more positive mental health outcomes in response to COVID-19.
So how do you cultivate it? The most effective way is to practice acceptance.
While it may seem counterintuitive, cultivating a sense of acceptance no matter what the circumstances can help create a sense of stability and ease even in the midst of upheaval.
By letting go of the need or desire to control the outcome of any given situation, you can learn to surf the waves of change by focusing on responding skillfully to the moment. Instead of trying to fix, change, go back in time, or berate yourself for not thinking of everything, accepting how little control you actually do have can be freeing.
To practice with the support of a professional, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a great option.
Plan for every outcome
Another way to use your pessimistic tendencies in a positive way is to calmly and methodically plan for adverse outcomes.
While you don’t want to descend into paranoia, it can be reassuring as well as responsible to plan for hard times.
This can provide a sense of self-efficacy as well as practical safety nets for facing a variety of situations.
Stick to your values
One thing’s for certain: negative thinking can sometimes spiral out of control. It’s possible to stay detached from the story by remembering your values and contrasting them with your pessimistic thoughts.
For instance, let’s say you value taking good care of yourself with a healthy diet and exercise, but you’re waiting to hear back from your doctor about an important test and find your pessimism taking over.
Instead of ruminating, you can step back from any fatalistic thinking by taking a more objective look at your beliefs and actions around your health.
Remind yourself of your value: “It’s important to me to take good care of my health, and I take action to do so.”
It’s true that you don’t know the outcome of the test, but you do know that you’ve done your best to be healthy and well.
By focusing on the value of caring for your health rather than the looming unknown of the prognosis, you can remind yourself over and over that no matter the outcome, your healthy habits can help support you even in the case of disease.
Focusing on values in the midst of pessimistic thinking can lead to a more balanced perspective.
It’s all transient
Remembering that nothing is permanent is another way of practicing acceptance. Everything passes, including good times and bad times.
A Buddhist parable tells of a farmer who has a series of boons and misfortunes. While the farmer’s neighbors are quick to label each experience as good or bad, the farmer simply says, “We’ll see.”
As one seemingly positive event leads to a negative one in an unending chain, the story shows the inevitable nature of life’s ups and downs, as well as how absurd it is to cling to any one outcome as good, bad, or otherwise.
A New Way to Look at Pessimism
As it turns out, pessimism may not be such a negative thing after all.
While it is associated with less resilience and poorer health outcomes, the positive side of pessimism can lead to preparedness and protection from being deceived.
In truth, it’s important to have both pessimistic and optimistic traits at the right time and in the right balance to truly benefit both mental and physical health.