Wisdom//

Is Being Pessimistic Always a Bad Thing?

It's all about managing expectations.

Courtesy of Kseniia Vladimirovna/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Kseniia Vladimirovna/Shutterstock

What does it mean to be pessimistic? Well, I come from a long line of pessimists and can tell you. Being pessimistic means that you tend to see the worst parts of things or think the worst will happen. A pessimistic person is one who is often seen as lacking hope and joy and is marked by disbelief or distrust. Basically, to be pessimistic means expecting the worst in all situations.

My grandmother used to spend every evening sitting in her rocking chair reading the obituaries — that was her idea of a good time. My dad has been sounding the alarm about the threat of climate change for decades, before mainstream media got wind of it, and he’s certain it’s a matter of years before we all perish.

My mother was overprotective to an extreme. She made sure I knew about every awful thing that could possibly happen to me as a young girl, and I grew up knowing how to protect myself from almost any dangerous scenario.

Growing up entrenched in pessimistic thinking wasn’t always a good thing. As you can imagine, anxiety runs rampant through my family line, and it’s something I have had to contend with for years. At the same time, taking a “worst case scenario” approach to life sometimes has its advantages.

I’m always prepared for whatever stress or misfortune I can imagine befalling me or anyone I know. In fact, I’m over prepared for life in general — whether it’s work, keeping my finances in order, or caring for my home and family. Pessimistic thoughts light a fire in my soul to add as much goodness as possible to all the darkness I see in the world.

What Does Research Say About Pessimistic People?

There is certainly a lot of research to back up the idea that keeping a positive attitude has benefits for your health and wellbeing. Some studies have shown that people who embrace positivity tend to experience better mental health, less stress, and better overall health. Optimists may even outlive pessimists.

At the same time, there are marked advantages of having a more pessimistic attitude. It all has to do with something called defensive pessimism, which is where your pessimistic attitude is harnessed as a means of reaching goals. People who experience defensive pessimism feel so anxious about the “what ifs” in life that they do everything in their power to make sure those things don’t happen.

Achieving goals

For example, if you are convinced that there is fierce competition for a job you are hoping to land — and that you are very unlikely to land the job — your defensive pessimism will motivate you to work ten times as hard to make sure you become the most appealing candidate.

Studies have shown that pessimists are often pretty successful at meeting their goals in life. There are other measured advantages to being a pessimist, such as being more likely to practice preventative care – like hand-washing – when viruses are going around (yes, we pessimists tend to be major hypochondriacs).

Self-confidence

Pessimists might also experience higher levels of self-confidence than optimists. A study that followed a group of college students found that defensive pessimists seemed to have higher self-confidence as compared to those who experienced anxiety. Some even had higher self-confidence scores than the typical optimist!

When Pessimistic Thinking Becomes A Problem

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. People who don’t experience “defensive pessimism” on a regular basis — i.e., pessimism that propels them toward positive action — tend to experience negative emotions surrounding their pessimistic thoughts, including self-loathing, anxiety, and depression.

At the same time that I find my pessimistic thought patterns to be motivating, I know my experience of anxiety and panic disorder is most definitely linked to the often dark and troubled way that I view life. For me, recognizing that my pessimistic thoughts are getting the best of me is the first step toward feeling better.

If you wrestle with pessimism — always imagining the worst case scenario, always believing that the world has an inherent darkness — you should know that you don’t have to feel beholden to these thoughts. Practicing mindfulness and meditation is a great way to begin to recognize when your thoughts are turning pessimistic. You can then practice ways to change your thoughts to more positive and comforting ones.

Anxiety and depression

For some of us, pessimistic thoughts are directly wrapped up in our struggles with depression and anxiety. If that’s the case for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist for help. It can be easy to get stuck in a pattern of pessimistic and negative thought patterns, and they can really impact mental health if they aren’t managed properly. There is hope, and compassionate care it out there.

For many of us, though, having a good balance of positivity along with a healthy dose of pessimism is not always a bad thing. Over the years, I have grown to accept that I’ll always be a “glass half full” type of person, and I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have accomplished or experienced all the goodness I have in life if I lived any other way.

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