Optimistic pessimism…

Apologies for the gap in blogs – it’s been a big few months with an interstate move (including moving my practice) and an overseas trip. But things are settling down, and I hope to write more regularly.


Today I’m going to write about something I’ve been thinking about more and more in my practice. It’s an emergent property of my thoughts around mindfulness and working with emotions and, to be honest, it’s not exactly new. Let’s call it my take on the “glass half full, glass half empty” phenomenon… I’m calling it optimistic pessimism.

Some preamble. I’m not necessarily a subscriber to the optimist versus pessimist thing. In particular, the so-called stable personality traits don’t appear to be as stable as we used to think, making our worldviews relatively malleable. I prefer to think of these outlooks as learned responses: over time we learn to view the world one way or another, based on our experiences (rather than some inherent trait). The problem is that we tend to give attentional preference to certain types of experiences, whether or not those experiences are representative of our lives. For instance, we’re a lot more prone to attending to circumstances that we perceive as negative, and weighting these experiences in our interpretation of the world. This makes evolutionary sense: we’re more likely to survive if we place greater emphasis on something that’s dangerous than on something that’s pleasant (or even neutral). So, over time, it’s quite easy to learn to view the world as a crappy place. For many, this is an accurate appraisal. Living in a warzone, or dealing with constant stress, violence, or uncertainty will predispose us to a pessimistic worldview that can help us to survive and function in those environments (although this is usually a diminishing return, with decreasing function over time). For the rest of us, however, our daily stresses aren’t usually life threatening or highly traumatising. Despite this, it’s often all too easy for us to learn to see the world as a thoroughly disappointing, stressful, and upsetting place.

Whilst often overused and oversimplified, the notions of optimism and pessimism deserve a bit of discussion. On the one hand, optimism represents one’s perception of events as more likely to have a positive or pleasant outcome. “Optimists”^ assume that things will probably work out for the best. The downside of this viewpoint is that the modern world is full of disappointments, stressors, and challenges. Expecting things to go the way we want them to can actually be a disadvantage, especially when things seldom work out the way we hope*. Pessimists, on the other hand, subscribe to the view that most events will result in disappointment, stress, or discomfort. As such, they often find themselves living in a word of self-fulfilling prophecy: the expectation that things will go wrong leads to actions that increase the likelihood of things going wrong (a highly unpleasant state – often resulting in feelings of helplessness). As I mentioned, these states are probably learnt rather than inherent, but can be quite pervasive once established, especially when our actions perpetuate our worldview (e.g., because we expect that other drivers won’t let us in, we drive in the same discourteous way that we expect others to, increasing the likelihood that everyone will drive like an arsehole).

In a nutshell, pessimists tend to have a more realistic worldview than optimists, especially when things are genuinely shit. As such, they often cope better when things go wrong because they’re not taken by surprise; expecting things to be crap and things turning out crap isn’t exactly contradictory. The downside is that, when things actually go right, there’s seldom any joy to it, after all, things will probably just turn to crap again. In other words, pessimists are more prone to be wary of pleasant or positive events, because they expect that things will invariably go wrong, meaning that the positive psychological effects usually associated with pleasant experiences are heavily dampened. Optimists might not be well prepared for problems, but they are pretty good at appreciating the good times. Because they expect things to go well, they pay more attention to positive or pleasant events, increasing any attached psychological benefit. So what if we combined the best of optimism and pessimism?

Optimistic pessimism, would involve preparing for the worst, but being pleasantly surprised when things turn out better than expected. For example, expecting the traffic to be heavy, and other drivers to be rude and uncaring, is a pretty good way of preparing for driving in a big city. If your drive goes as expected, you’re preprepared, and, although the drive wasn’t pleasant, the expectation of difficulty was likely to have reduced any stressful response associated with the unrealistic expectation that the drive will be great. Better, if you expect the traffic to be heavy but it’s a bit lighter than imagined, or another driver lets you in, or you get three green traffic lights in a row, the experience can become a pleasant surprise. In other words, rather than expecting things to go right or wrong and then being upset when your expectations aren’t met, preparing for a worst-case scenario and either getting what you expected (without stressing about it) or something better than expected, allows us to view something that could easily be perceived as stressful (e.g., heavy traffic) as relatively pleasant (e.g., heavy traffic that’s less heavy than planned for).

If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice that optimistic pessimism is more about realistic appraisals and expectations than maintaining a worldview*^. The reason people often develop a pessimistic viewpoint is that they are taught to expect that reality will be in line with their expectations, but find that these expectations are dramatically misaligned with reality. This delusion sets us up for constant disappointment, stress, and frustration. Worse, because many people’s expectations are skewed toward fantasy, they expect that ‘good things’ should and will happen to them (e.g., they will get to work on time, or will get a promotion, or won’t have any rain on their holiday). So when the inevitable ‘disappointment’ comes along, instead of simply acknowledging it and focusing on what matters, they become fixated on the event as a ‘bad thing’. An optimistic pessimist reduces the weight associated with expectation: rather than ‘good things’ and ‘bad things’, it’s just things (because seriously, when we start labeling things that are completely outside of our control as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we’re pretty much giving up any free will and passing our worldview over to chance). When it rains on an optimistic pessimist’s holiday, it just rains and she gets on with enjoying her holiday. Because she expected that it would probably rain, and that she had no control over whether the rain happened or not, her expectations align with reality, freeing her up to appreciate her experiences (including the rain).

Try it out using the following steps:

1) Before doing something, evaluate your expectations. Ask yourself whether those expectations are aligned with reality.

2) Prepare yourself for the worst: expect that things will difficult or uncomfortable and that’s just the way it will be. Discomfort doesn’t mean that the experience will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

3) Observe your experience. If reality matches your expectation, that’s fine. It’s simply an uncomfortable experience. No harm done (seriously).

4) If you’re uncomfortable, go with it – it’s only discomfort after all, and it’s really not going to help if you fight it or struggle against it – especially if all that struggle is wasted (i.e., no matter what you do, you can’t change reality). You might even find that the experience has resulted in something new.

5) If things are a little (or a lot) better than you expected, revel in it. Appreciate the moment, and the next one, and the one after that.

6) Excellent – you’re now an optimistic pessimist.


^ I know I’m contradicting myself here by suggesting that the traits of optimism and pessimism don’t really exist, and then labelling people as optimists or pessimists. Bear with me – it’s easier to make a point this way.

* Traffic in a big city is great example of this problem. Optimists could find themselves constantly unstuck if they expect the traffic to to be light, or other motorists to be polite and courteous. Both world views tend to lose out here: optimists get stressed because the traffic is a lot worse than expected, and pessimists get stressed because the traffic congestion confirms their view that the traffic in their city is shit.

*^ This is where the mindful aspect comes in. Rather than defaulting to a worldview that’s been learnt over time, this approach involves a conscious appraisal of events, and an active observation of the world. It takes more effort, but it’s fundamentally more satisfying.


One Reply to “Optimistic pessimism…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.