The Modern Glorification of Pessimism
I went through a phase in my life where I was really into reading quotes, whether they were quotes from genius inventors, iconic musicians or just the everyday “unknown”. There is one quote that has stood out to me for a long time, and the quote is:
“Optimism is not always dumb and pessimism is not always deep — Alain de Botton”
What is optimism and pessimism?
Optimism is a mental attitude characterized by hope and confidence in success and a positive future, whereas pessimism is a mental attitude characterized by a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen. An increasing number of people whether consciously or subconsciously, think that being optimistic is futile, that optimism is naive as one is feeding themself a false narrative. Instead, they believe that pessimism, cynicism, is a better outlook on life simply because if you expect the worst, you are less likely to be disappointed. However, this article will prove that true optimism is not naive, dull or foolish, and that pessimism is not always a wiser, more realistic or more mature outlook on life.
Why society is becoming more cynical
Our modern day society is becoming more and more cynical. The question is, why? With the creation of the internet, we are now more aware of what happens around the world. As a result, we are not only more aware of global events and happenings, but also of all the problems that happen around the world, the political dysfunction, the human right violations, the ineptitude of our political leaders and the environmental degradation, just to name a few. This is further fuelled by the media’s tendency to focus on negative, tragic developments rather than positive ones as the drama-filled news headlines tend to have a longer grip on the viewers’ attention, perhaps due to the sometimes morbid curiosity of humankind.
Most positive developments happening in our world are not “news-worthy”, and they aren’t built in a day. Most of the time, headlines about countries at war, tornadoes and terrorist attacks monopolize the front page, not news about Tokyo’s hydrogen-powered Olympic games or of the Malaysian toddler and prodigy joining Mensa at the age of 3, the youngest Mensa member in the UK. This can lead us to developing a cognitive bias. Since we are constantly fed and exposed to news surrounding negative, terrible tragedies all around the world, we believe that the world is a terrible place.
We live in a world where we warn our children of how the “real world” is a dark and scary place, where other people don’t really care about how they feel, occasionally summing up unpleasant experiences with the statement “that’s just how the world works”. If one grows up hearing all these warnings surrounding human nature and about all the downfalls and failings of humanity in both the past and the present, the likelihoods of them adopting a cynical mindset, such as those of “the world can’t be saved” or “who cares, we’re all going to die anyway” as a default response is high. For some, adopting an attitude of cynicism may feel like an act of rebellion, a way of reclaiming agency in a dark, messed up world. But in reality, it’s a decision that wouldn’t only be bad for the individual practising it, but for society as a whole.
Having a cynical view of human nature has been associated with bad health outcomes and increased mortality risks, lower psychological well-being, diminished self-esteem, and reduced economic well-being. Also, if you stay pessimistic for long enough, it can lead to corrosive pessimism. If everything is awful, the politicians and business leaders are always greedy, selfish liars, the world beyond salvation and doomed, what’s the point in doing anything? Pessimism can be toxic at a societal level because at moments where action is necessary, pessimism can create a paralyzing effect. The person ends up conceding the fight, giving up the fight against those who profit from the destruction of our planet, unfair labour laws and other unethical issues our world faces.
Some people end up using dark humour, sometimes as an attempt to lighten up the situation and or as a coping mechanism. Some people naturally default to cynicism because it’s safe. Instead of trying to change the world, it’s easier to retreat to their rooms and complain about society with disdain, echoing their complaints in a chamber filled with disheartened souls.
Pessimists often say that it’s experience that breeds the pessimistic mindset they have chosen to adopt rather than a failing in human nature. This might be true, but only in a certain way.
Psych Central presented this scenario as an example, “The first time you trust a stranger and are betrayed, it makes sense to avoid trusting other strangers in the future. But the problem is that if we don’t trust other strangers even again, we will never find out how trustworthy people in general really are. As a result, our estimation of them is governed by fear.” Some pessimists adopt pessimism as a protective measure, as a way to protect themselves from hurt, from bad people and from dark and scary people. Following this argument, perhaps it is instead a lack of positive experiences that leads to pessimism.
Genuine optimism vs toxic positivity
The media’s portrayal of optimistic characters as “bubbly airheads” contributes to the false notion that optimists are ignorant towards reality when in reality, this is not what true optimism is. A true optimist doesn’t sugar coat reality and pretend that everything is all butterflies and rainbows when it’s not. Genuine optimism is not pushing your feelings under the rug and masking your feelings with a smile when you don’t want to, that’s toxic positivity. There’s a big difference between toxic positivity and genuine, true optimism.
True optimists aren’t ashamed to grieve and to give themselves time to process a situation. They are not afraid to allow themselves to fully feel the emotions they are experiencing and be compassionate towards themselves, not shaming themselves for any emotions they might feel.
Optimists are not naive or delusional. Looking at the bright side does not mean that one does not see the reality of the situation. Optimists know that things, people and situations change. Being optimistic means believing that even if things might not be good right now, it will be okay in the end. Optimism itself is the belief, hope and confidence that no matter what happens, everything will be okay in the end, you will be okay in the end.
Both are double-edged swords, choose your weapons wisely
There are both advantages and disadvantages of adopting an optimistic or pessimistic mindset. Pessimists tend to undermine things, believe that bad events will last a long time and or blame themselves for the outcome. They tend to experience greater stress, poorer health and well-being. Extreme pessimism can be depressing as focusing on the negative, catastrophizing events and overly negative thinking contributes to depression and anxiety. Some pessimists might end up catastrophizing events and outcomes, magnifying thoughts and situations and blowing them way out of proportion with reality. However, pessimism can help one manage their expectations and their feelings of disappointment. It could also help one prepare themselves to cope with the worst case scenario.
Optimism has been shown to be generally beneficial for one’s health, success, wellbeing and quality of life. Adopting an optimistic mindset improves one’s ability to solve problems, cope more easily with stress and persevere against challenges. Optimists tend to perform better, experience less stress and bounce back faster from setbacks as well. However, people who are overly optimistic about something may be less likely to consider the potential risks and take steps to mitigate those issues.
Also, if genuine optimism becomes toxic positivity, those people might unintentionally invalidate the experiences of people going through tough times. People adopting toxic positivity may also overvalue positive feelings while ignoring or possibly even suppressing negative ones, which is not healthy for one’s mental health. Optimists can avoid this pitfall by focusing on maintaining a healthy, realistic approach to positivity, looking on the bright side of situations while still acknowledging the potential difficulties of it.
In the end, optimism and pessimism are not just mindsets, but also different approaches to life that affect the way we respond to situations, challenges, success and failure. This article was not meant to shame pessimism or to renounce it, but to simply point out some facts so that you can self-evaluate and decide which mindset you want to adopt for yourself. If you decide that you would like to become a more optimistic person, there are always countless methods and information available online on how to do so.
“Optimism is defined by hope, which is not always easy to have. However, it is definitely achievable and learnable.”
It is not always easy to believe in a better future, especially when you, and or the entirety of humankind, go through difficult moments. It is okay if you don’t feel the best right now, it is okay for you to feel however you feel. I just hope you remember that this moment will pass, and that you believe that no matter what happens, things will be okay in the end.
[Written by: Ruby Seet]
- What True Optimism Looks Like
- The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence
- Cynical people aren’t realistic — they’re just lazy
- Harvard Professor Steven Pinker on Why We Refuse to See the Bright Side, Even Though We Should
- The Trust Gap: Why People Are So Cynical
- Being an Optimist or a Pessimist. Are the Labels Really Relevant?
- Catastrophizing and Decatastrophizing: A PositivePsychology.com Guide
- What Is Optimism?
- What Is Pessimism?
- Pros and cons to both optimism and pessimism