The Allure of Pessimism

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist?

Perhaps a combination of the two?

Whatever you answer, you’ve likely come across the allure of pessimism at some time or another.

Maybe it was the ‘cool kids’ at school whose pessimistic outlook on school work and ‘trying hard’ seemed enticing. Trying hard wasn’t cool, neither was caring about school. To be pessimistic is to be cool.

Or perhaps in university intellectual circles, the allure of pessimism was the opposite. To have or argue a pessimistic point of view was to capture attention and seem like a more intelligent, deeper thinker than your peers. To be pessimistic is to be smart.

Pessimistic news stories with headlines that highlight some impending doom are much more readily consumed than optimistic ones. To be pessimistic is to capture the world’s attention.

There’s a powerful charm that comes with a pessimistic outlook on just about anything in life.

“For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell.”

– Deirdre McCloskey (Historian)

As Morgan Housel (author and partner at Collaborative Fund) puts it, “pessimism just sounds smarter and more plausible than optimism…It’s intellectually captivating, and it’s paid more attention than optimism, which is often viewed as being oblivious to risk.”

But we have gaps in our reasoning abilities that keep us from giving pessimism the attention and weight that it actually deserves.

Why humans gravitate towards pessimism

The way I see it, there are three main reason we’re so easily seduced by pessimism.

1. Pessimism is a part of our very survival as a species.

As Daniel Kahneman (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking Fast and Slow) once wrote: “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.”

In other words, humans are generally loss aversethe pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.

And so we air on the side of caution – the side of pessimism – to save us that pain.

We’re wired to allow threats to carry more weight in our brains because doing so has historically proven to be a better survival strategy.

2. Optimism is misunderstood.

If not pessimism, then what? A blind belief that everything will always turn out great?

As Housel points out, that’s not optimism. That would be considered complacency.

Instead, “optimism is a belief that the odds of a good outcome are in your favor over time, even when there will be setbacks along the way.”

It’s easy to default to pessimism if we have a faulty view of what it means to be optimistic.

3. Pessimism feels like a safer bet.

The whole hope for the best, prepare for the worst mentality (which I must admit, I’m definitely drawn towards) helps us manage our expectations. Which in a lot of ways is smart and critical to our ability to handle life’s challenges, pains, and disappointments.

Pessimism feels like a safer bet – a sure way to shield ourselves from unnecessary pain (similar to #1).

Combine those three reasons and when you’re faced with the choice of “naïve” optimism or “play it safe” pessimism, guess which seems the easier, more logical choice?

So how do we maintain only a healthy amount of pessimism in life?

Pessimism clearly has had a beneficial place in our lives. But to allow ourselves to be solely driven by it on the basis that it makes more sense than naïve optimism is too simplistic.

It’s one thing to recognize that though charming, too much pessimism can have harmful effects on our desire to go out and live a fulfilling life.

It’s another thing to actually break free from the allure.

Whenever you catch yourself slipping into an overly pessimistic worldview, remember the following.

1. Acknowledge where our tendency towards pessimism comes from and why it has it’s place in our lives. But also recognize it’s harm.

I’m not going to sit here and argue that pessimism is inherently bad. It clearly has benefits – acknowledge what they are and that’s that.

But it’s also important to recognize it’s limitations. If you only choose to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen, your mental health will suffer. If you have a lack of hope or confidence in the future, it becomes paralyzing. And people will get tired of being around you because it’s draining.

If you only focus on the negatives in life, soon that’s all you’ll see. That’s all you’ll become. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you let it be.

2. Remember what it means to be optimistic.

Housel defines the foundation of optimism as “the simple idea that most people wake up in the morning trying to make things a little better and more productive than wake up looking to cause trouble.”

To leave pessimism behind you, you don’t have to adopt an exaggeratedly positive view. Just remember that as long as you can find a way to give positive thoughts a slight edge over pessimism when it tries to pull you down, this will compound over time.

3. Understand that an optimistic outlook on life looks at time as your friend.

This is the hardest thing to wrap our heads around when we’re young. Being present is hugely important (not allowing ourselves to obsess about the future with no regard for today), but so is having a solid grasp on what we can accomplish with time on our side.

I find myself having to constantly work on it.

During COVID times, I’ve found I’ve built the skill a bit better, as it’s one of the few things we can do to keep going day to day is to optimistically imagine a time where we can better do the things we want to in life.

Optimism comes into play when you look at the long game. The odds of an optimistic outcome are in your favor over time, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. And it’s all thanks to compounding — the investment of all of your small actions and behaviors day to day….the little things in life.

All the returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge, come from compound interest.

Naval Ravikant

4. Acknowledge the power of time, but ground yourself in the present. Focus on what is within your control today.

You can’t reap the rewards of compounding unless you’re grounded in today, and in what’s in your power to do today. Unless you take action today. Don’t let a pessimistic outlook be what holds you back.

Let go of the negatives of the past, and ignore the uncertainty of the future. How can you make small improvements today? If not improvements, then how can you avoid slipping further back? What is beautiful about today? What are you grateful for today?

We all know we should do this, but it’s really hard to actually put into practice.

It all ultimately comes down to trial and error. Working to find daily activities and habits that help ground you in today. You won’t know what works for you unless you’re willing to try.

Thanks for joining me another week on my blog! I know the last couple weeks have been serious, deep thinking topics. I promise I have some more lighthearted stuff planned for the coming weeks to end 2020 and kick off the new year 🙂

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