The glass is half-empty, and storm clouds loom overhead, never with a silver lining. Pessimists get a lot of flak for their inclination toward negativity and their tendency to expect the worst in most situations.
Besides taking a toll on their mental health, their physical health may take a beating, too. Pessimism, while it may be useful in isolation or in moderation, is associated with anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, hostility, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Having realistic expectations, rather than taking extremely positive or negative positions, may actually be the recipe for good health and happiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, low levels of pessimism, rather than high levels of optimism, have actually been associated with better health.
In other words, pessimism may be a risk factor for heart disease and other physical and mental health conditions, but optimism won’t necessarily prevent you from becoming ill. Rather than constantly aiming for a bright smile and sunny disposition, or giving in to an overall negative outlook, the goal should be moderate optimism with a daily dose of pessimism.
Label negative thoughts when they arise, and then set them aside. Don’t give them any attention; it only makes them more powerful. Zoom out and focus on something different (either positive or neutral). Instead of rushing right into the next task, slow down. Acknowledge whatever difficult emotions you may be feeling, and make room for joy.
Instead of avoiding a pessimistic person, reach out to them. Try to identify possible sources of their negativity. Perhaps they are going through a difficult time, like the loss of a job or a bad breakup, and could use a sympathetic ear. Understanding the cause of a person’s pessimistic outlook can lead to creative ideas to boost their happiness.
Pessimism usually isn’t a conscious choice. Some people are genetically predisposed to be more negative than others. However, pessimism more often develops as a result of external circumstances, such as a bad breakup, job loss, injury, illness, or other trauma. Pessimists also may push their loved ones away just when they need them the most.
Similar to other negative feelings, pessimism can spread from one person to another when they spend enough time together. It can be especially difficult for family or romantic partners to avoid catching a cynical outlook. Some factors that can make a person more susceptible to pessimism include their genetics, personal history, and stress levels, among other factors.
Pessimists sometimes make better leaders, particularly where there is a need to ignite social change. Their skepticism may make them more resistant to propaganda and false advertising. The degree of pessimism felt by an individual or group can often be linked to political and economic conditions in their personal lives and their society. In addition, defensive pessimism has proven to be a useful cognitive strategy for some people; they set their expectations low and then outperform them by preparing thoroughly for a wide range of negative outcomes in advance.
In smaller doses, pessimism can be adaptive, because it alerts people to threats. For instance, pessimism and distrust of others can be a red flag of burnout at work. Being aware of these problem areas in life makes it possible to change harmful behaviors and adopt a healthier, less cynical attitude.
People with a depressed mood may demonstrate more accurate judgment about an event (real or imagined) and a more realistic perception of their own abilities and limitations. This phenomenon is referred to as depressive realism. This is observed both among people in a state of depression and among longer-term “trait” pessimists.
The answer depends on the individual and their personality. While many people benefit from a positive outlook, certain individuals perform better when they indulge in their natural pessimism. For example, picturing a negative outcome right before a test or performance can motivate them to do their best work. Embracing anxiety and spending time imagining the worst-case scenario can give that extra boost to succeed.