You Can be a Pessimist and Still Live a Healthy, Happy Life

cognac class with full and empty written above and below the fill line
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Defensive Pessimism

I often consider myself a reasonably positive person—that is, until I meet someone who is really a positive person.

I’m referring to the kind of person who is forever pointing out silver linings. The person that quickly turns an injury or failure into an opportunity or open door. The kind of person who views even stress as an opportunity to celebrate the idea that there’s something that matters enough to be stressful about in the first place. You know, the eternal optimist.

Compared to that kind of person, I am definitely a pessimist. I don’t go about my days always expecting the best, nor do I assume that others hold only good intentions. I don’t believe that I can overcome any hurdle with nothing more than a positive mindset and a cup of tea. Instead, I have an imaginative mind that can envision how even the best opportunities can go wrong and even “good” people can become dangerous. And I’m probably always, on some level of awareness, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the “but” in the story, for the “catch” in the deal.

In our society, we tend to view optimism as the healthiest, most ideal way to move through life. Of course, there’s no argument that optimism is good for you. But what if it’s not the only way to navigate life and remain healthy? What if pessimism has its own gifts and light to add to our collective human experience?

I’m not talking about an Eyore kind of pessimism (which is probably undiagnosed depression, not pessimism). Neither am I advocating that we all walk around with the belief that life is awful and everyone is out to get us. I’m talking about the strategic kind of pessimism known as defensive pessimism. Research has shown this technique can, for some, be a healthy and successful way to move through life.

Here is the definition:

Defensive pessimism is “a mechanism whereby the individual anticipates poor future performance despite evidence of a prior successful history. Such negative predictions help defensive pessimists in reducing anxiety and, therefore, in planning how to avoid poor performance” (del Mar Ferradas, Freire, Nunez, Pineiro, & Rosario, 2017).

Sound suspect?

As someone who has long used defensive pessimism (even before I knew it had a name), let me walk you through seven positive aspects of negative thinking I’ve noticed in my own life.

7 Positive Aspects of Negative Thinking

1. What-If-ing Helps Combat Anxiety

Pessimists, far more than optimists, can imagine potential pitfalls and problems in all future scenarios. Our minds naturally play out the what-ifs. Unlike our optimistic friends who believe that everything will work out in the end, pessimists are the ones showing up with contingency and backup plans. We prefer preventative actions, not reactive ones.

This is not because we want or are wishing for the worst to happen. Of course not. It’s merely that if we plan for all the possible outcomes, we can better relax into a situation, feeling ready for anything. Thinking or talking something through is my way of managing my anxiety.

2. We’re Natural Strategists Going Into Unknown Experiences

When I travel, I automatically assume that my flight will be delayed and that the line at security will be over an hour long. This means that I always have a good book to read, comfortable shoes on my feet, and snacks in my bag, no matter how short the journey is supposed to be. Since I have already made peace with a long, stressful day, when it is, it doesn’t shake my world when it happens. Nor do I have to jump through mental hoops to “positively reframe” a bad situation.

When, instead, my flight is peaceful and we land on time, I’m grateful. Having expected the worst does not diminish my ability to appreciate what’s good. In fact, I probably appreciate it even more. If you need a plan of action for when things go wrong, ask a pessimist, not an optimist.

3. We Cope With and Heal From Negative Experiences Quickly and Directly

Again here, I’d like to use the example of travel. Being an inherently stressful event, public transportation of all types has a way of bringing out our strengths and weaknesses as human beings; if you want to know who someone is, travel with them.

The last time I traveled with my husband, an optimist, we had a very tight connection. He was so stressed about the reality we might miss our next flight, you would think the moon, the sun, and the stars themselves had gone off course. Meanwhile, my brain had already anticipated this kind of possibility and had already made contingency plans. So, when we ended up making our flight, it was, for me, a nicety while for him, it was an enormous relief to watch the stars, moon, and sun return to their proper alignment.

4. We See People as People: Imperfect and Capable of Anything

I’ve been around enough optimists to know some of their mantras. One of them is that they “see the good” in everyone. They encourage us to look past obvious shortcomings and assume someone’s intentions must be in the right place, even when they’re not.

We pessimists, on the other hand, tend to regard others with healthy skepticism. We don’t buy the idiom that most people are “good.” We accept that people are complicated. That they have backgrounds and unknown histories they carry with them that we couldn’t possibly account for.

We don’t try to see the good in everyone, and that’s just healthy common sense. People can be heroes and villains—sometimes on the same day. This includes ourselves. It doesn’t make us a better or more spiritual person to try and assume everyone is good at heart. It’s wiser, and also safer, to realize that human nature can be unpredictable—sometimes angelic and sometimes demonic, but, most of the time, somewhere in between.

5. We Have a Strong Connection to Our Gut Instinct

Because we don’t have an impulse to turn every situation into something positive, we live more aligned with our intuition than our positive-framing friends. We don’t expect life to be rosy, and we simply address things as we go. So, when we see a half-empty glass, we just fill the damn thing, rather than re-label it.

We see things for what they are, and we let our responses be guided not only by past experiences but by that “little voice” inside us. If something doesn’t feel right, we follow our internal compass wherever it leads.

Rather than making lemonade from lemons, we’ll just grab soda water instead. Because here’s the thing: soda water was always our backup plan. We were never that attached to or invested in the lemons in the first place. We’re okay with calling them what they are: lemons.

6. We Live in Truth and Mindfulness

“But what if—” I offer.

“Shhh, don’t even say that! Think positive!” replies the optimist anytime I offer up a possibility of a negative outcome.

I know that the Law of Attraction suggests that our thoughts create our reality, but, even if we are this powerful, we need to remember we’re not the only ones shaping the course of actions in this world. Mindset is powerful, but it cannot overcome the laws of the universe or actions already set into motion by factors outside of ourselves.

Pessimists, just as much as optimists, know that life is about celebrating our successes, triumphs, connections, and joys. But we also accept that life is about exploring our traumas and feeling our pain. We’re not afraid to go into the dark spaces in our minds. We’re okay with not always getting our best foot forward. And we accept our mood swings and emotional shifts throughout our lives, even from moment to moment. In this way, we don’t have to spend precious time and energy reframing and rebooting ourselves with positive affirmations—we know we’ll swing that way again when it’s time.

7. We Don’t Normalize What Shouldn’t Be Normalized

Choosing to live positively means, at some level, constantly reframing and readjusting to reality. This can easily turn into normalizing things that shouldn’t be normal or acceptable. Like the dog in the infamous meme, optimists can be sitting in the middle of a burning building, sipping their coffee, telling themselves everything is fine.

Optimists can easily start accepting the unacceptable and allowing inappropriate. They might turn a blind eye to signs and flags that a pessimist would never miss. Sometimes, wrongs need to be named, addressed, and righted. People fail us. Situations are stacked against us. While optimists keep trying to “find the good in someone,” pessimists are already putting into place their backup plans, addressing the repercussions, or advocating for accountability and justice.

You can thank a pessimist when someone points you to the fire exit; they sought those red signs out when they first entered the building.

An Optimistic Ending

How about this optimistic ending for a piece written in support of pessimism?

Rather than seeing pessimists and optimists as natural opposites—or even foes—in which one approach must be right and therefore the other wrong, what if we began to see them as two halves of a whole? What if it’s in the union of these two approaches where we will find the balance we need?

One thing I know is this: those of us who consider ourselves pessimists or tap “defensive pessimism” as a life strategy experience just as much joy, excitement, love, wonder, and possibility as our optimistic counterparts. Perhaps even more so, since we never expected them in the first place.

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