Well-Being//

Being a Pessimist Isn’t Necessarily Bad, According to Science

Positive thinking has long been hailed as a route to success, health, and happiness. But pessimism may actually help some people achieve their goals.

Paper Boat Creative/ Getty Images
Paper Boat Creative/ Getty Images

I am typically prepared for a disaster. Seriously, I have a kit in my car just in case I find myself at the scene of a car crash, or if a tornado hits. That’s because I don’t want to be unable to help someone if I’m in that situation, and while statistically it’s unlikely, in reality, statically unlikely things happen every day. As a side benefit, my friends regularly rely on my supplies for smaller incidents, so it’s not wasteful.

“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.”

—  George Bernard Shaw

Obviously men and women around the world use positive thinking as a way to achieve health, wealth, and happiness. Optimistic thinking helps them overcome challenging obstacles, while navigating situations they originally thought were impossible to get through.

Being an optimist is great, but a new study has found that there are benefits to being a pessimist.

Believe it or not, having a negative outlook may be the secret to living a healthier life.

Researchers have found a new type of pessimist, called the “defensive pessimist”: people who use negative thinking to help reach their goals.

Fuschia Sirois, a researcher in health psychology at the University of Sheffield, explains how this particular type of pessimism gives some people an edge. 

The “defensive pessimist” actually harnesses negative thinking as a means for reaching their goals.

Research has shown that this way of thinking can not only help some people succeed, but also bring some unexpected rewards. However, the most common form of pessimism, which involves simply blaming oneself for negative outcomes, has less positive effects.

In addition, researchers suggest that defensive pessimism is a strategy that people who are anxious use to help them manage their anxiety, which might otherwise make them want to run in the opposite direction of their goal rather than pursue it.

The crucial factor is setting low expectations for the outcome of a particular plan or situation – like expecting that you won’t get hired after a job interview – and then envisioning the details of everything that might possibly go wrong to make these worst-case scenarios a reality. This gives the defensive pessimist a plan of action to ensure that any imagined mishaps won’t actually happen – such as practising for the interview and getting there early.

The benefits of defensive pessimism also extend to actual performance. One study shows that this has everything to do with negative mood. When prompted to be in a good mood, defensive pessimists performed poorly on a series of word puzzles. However, when they were put in bad mood, by being instructed to imagine how a scenario might have negative outcomes, they performed significantly better. This suggests that they harness their negative mood to motivate themselves to perform better.

In conclusion, the key difference that separates defensive pessimists from other individuals who think negatively – such as those who are simply anxious or depressed – is the way they cope. Whereas people tend to use avoidance to cope with anticipated problems when they are feeling anxious or depressed, defensive pessimists use their negative expectations to motivate them to take active steps to feel prepared and be more in control over outcomes.

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