Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Be Happy -- Just Think Negative Thoughts!!

Are pessimists actually happier than optimists?

According to modern theory, positive thinking reduces stress and probably improves health (see, for example, the Mayo Clinic’s online health information). Yet I have long believed that pessimism can also promote well-being. Maybe it comes from having a father who used to tell me not to feel badly if I didn’t make top grades in school. “There’s nowhere to go but down after you make an A,” he would say. Maybe it’s genetics – he and I did, after all, share a common gene pool.

Still, pessimism, when not taken too far, can be protective, while optimism can sometimes be a little dangerous.

As when my son, at the age of three, was overly optimistic about his swimming skills and refused to accept that he needed his swimmies before he jumped into a friend’s pool. Fortunately, his dad and I weren’t nearly so optimistic and, to his great dismay, grabbed him before he had a chance to find out the sad truth. 

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According to a recent study this experience isn’t so unusual. Researchers at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany examined data on approximately 40,000 people collected annually between 1993 to 2003. Lead author, Frieder R. Lang, said, “Our findings revealed that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and death within the following decade…Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions.” Not surprisingly, children and young people tended to be more optimistic -- and get into more difficulty -- than older folks.The study was published online in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Yvonne, an attractive woman in her early thirties, told me that she had never expected to get married. “I just didn’t think I was ever going to find a man I really felt compatible with,” she said. She fell in love – numerous times – but the relationships didn’t work out. “People kept telling me it was because I didn’t expect them to, that I was pre-ordaining the end before I even got to the beginning,” she noted. “Maybe they were right, but actually, I don’t think so.” Because eventually she did find a man who she could see herself staying with for the rest of her life. “He was just such a good guy,” she told me. “I loved being with him.” But doubt does not shift to hope overnight. At one point during the winter after they started dating, her boyfriend suggested that they make plans for a summer vacation together.

“How do you know we’ll still be together then?” she asked him.

He told her that he didn’t know it, but that he was willing to take a chance. “And if we aren’t seeing each other, we can cancel our reservations,” he said.

I have always been fond of the story told by hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, who believed that resistance to change and negativity, or pessimism, serves a purpose. The story was of a farmer with a stubborn and independent-minded cow. If the farmer wanted to get the cow into the barn, the cow insisted on pulling back out into the farmyard. And if the farmer wanted her in the yard, the cow insisted on pulling away from him into her stall. But he found a way to outsmart her: if he pulled her in the opposite direction from the one he wanted her to go in, she would inevitably back up in the direction he wanted her to go. So when he wanted her to go into the barn, he tried to pull her out of it; and when he wanted her to go out, of course, he pulled her towards her stall.

Negativity and pessimism can function in much the same way as the farmer’s paradoxical approach with his cow. Yvonne explained it this way. “My grandmother used to say ‘pu pu pu’ anytime she was happy – she said it was to keep anything bad from happening. My mother would knock on wood anytime she said something positive. So I don’t do either of those things – I just always expect the worst.”

The good news about pessimism is that when good things happen, they are always a pleasant surprise; and when things go wrong, you’re not so badly disappointed, since it was what you expected anyway!

Of course, when pessimism makes it impossible to enjoy those good things, it’s gone too far, just as optimism taken too far can make it impossible to make realistic and even healthy choices. Professor Lang says, what’s important to keep in mind is that “our perspectives (whether optimistic or pessimistic) can either help or hinder us in taking actions that can help improve our chances of a long healthy life.”

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Readings cited in this post:

My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson (editor: Sidney Rosen)  

Positive thinking: Reduce stress by eliminating negative self-talk   http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009

Pessimism About the Future May Lead to Longer, Healthier Life:   http://its-interesting.com/category/university-of-erlangen-nuremb...

Teaser image source: http://canindia.com/2013/03/pessimists-live-longer-and-healthier-...

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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