Alain de Botton on the surprising benefits of pessimism

“Optimism is the greatest flaw of the modern world.” -Alain de Botton

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Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is one of the most well-known living philosophers. In opposition to the majority of undead philosophy enthusiasts, De Botton’s focus is on practical philosophy, aiming to understand and master the fundamental worries of modern life.

Accordingly, his books have been described as “philosophy of everyday life”.

Throughout his oeuvre, De Botton has developed an unusual theory about the value of pessimism.

Why we should be more pessimistic

His argument begins with a central question: what is the source of our unhappiness? What causes these episodes of sadness — these moments, days or perhaps even years during which we are thoroughly convinced that life sucks?

According to De Botton, we are cast into gloom not by negativity, but by hope.

It’s optimism with regard to our careers, love lives, children, politicians and our planet that is primarily to blame for angering and bittering us. The incompatibility between the grandeur of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments which wreck our days.

Pessimism, on the other hand, helps us to sustain happiness in light of the inevitable setbacks we encounter.

How pessimism consoles us

But wait — isn’t positive thinking good for your health, happiness, performance and all that? And isn’t pessimism a form negative thinking, and therefore not wise to do?

De Botton argues that it is exactly this mindset that has made us lose control over our optimism and with that, over our expectations.

Over the last centuries, material improvements have been so remarkable to give a fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic, and therefore crucially to our ability to stay sane and content. It is been impossible to hold on to a balanced assessment of what life will provide for us when we’ve witnessed the cracking of the genetic code, the invention of the mobile phone, the opening of Western-style supermarkets of remote corners of China and the launch of the Hubble telescope.

However, De Botton rightly points out that despite the technological progress of our age, our lives today are in the end no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, anxiety or death.

Optimism leads to erroneous estimates of the likelihood of negative events. Due to these biased probability judgments, we gravely misinterpret common misfortunes. When we take some negative event — say, losing your job — to be a highly exceptional happening, we consider ourselves really unlucky or inadequate because it happened to us. Whereas, in fact, such developments are part of normal living and not due to a lack of luck or ability on our side. Pessimism helps us to see this.

Marry me?

Using the example of love De Botton goes on to show that the damage of optimism extends far beyond cognitive biases regarding the odds of this or that difficulty befalling us.

De Botton compares our secular view of romantic relationships with the way these unions are regarded in religious civilizations. In such societies, marriage is not governed by subjective enthusiasm but rather and more modestly seen as a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in the community.

These limited expectations tend to forestall the suspicion so familiar to secular partners that there might have been more intense alternatives available elsewhere. Within the religious ideal, friction, disputes and boredom are signs not of error, but of life preceding more or less according to plan.

Human beings are comparatively humdrum and flawed creations worthy of forgiveness and patience, a detail which is apt to elude our notice in the heat of marriages between persons who expect each other to meet Hollywood-inspired love-standards. Some pessimism relieves this excessive imaginative pressure that our culture places upon romance.

Don’t forget about the present

The secular contemporary world maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement.

In the future, things will get better.

When we expect to find salvation in the time to come, the good things of our present situation are likely to elude our attention. After all, the world will improve — therefore our current situation is inferior to the forthcoming circumstances.

In doing so, we do not live in the present but send our — positive! — thoughts a long way ahead.

We disguise escapism as a form of optimism.

That is not a good habit.

As Stoic philosopher Seneca (4BC — 65AD) puts it:

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.”

According to the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), it is precisely such routines of thought that are the origins of discontent:

“The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. [In this manner,] a hoping individual is not present to himself. He renounces the present.”

An optimistic mindset can cause us to discard the present. Contrary to expectations, these positive thoughts then contribute to our unhappiness instead of alleviating it.

Keep calm and carry on

It’s undeniable that scientific and economic trajectories have been pointing firmly in an upward direction for several centuries.

And still, sometimes life just sucks and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Today’s omnipotent expectations of improvement and entitlement to progress obscure this fact. In our culture, we are quick to forget that people are imperfect, that some failure is normal and that the now is all we have.

As De Botton puts it:

“It’s the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized here on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may in the same breath dismiss a belief in angels, while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind.”

Pessimism, by contrast, helps us to retain a hold on reality by lowering our expectations. It reveals that our miseries are not an anomaly but part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind.

There’s more to that

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PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

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