When trying to differentiate between optimism and pessimism, we often hear that one sees the glass as half full and the other sees it as half empty. It’s simply not the case that optimism is “good” and pessimism is “bad”—although that’s how we’ve been encouraged to think about them. Rather, both are functional and both have value.
“Optimists see the opportunity in every difficulty. Pessimists see the difficulty in every opportunity.”
There’s value in both viewpoints. We need to value the optimists or we’ll never move beyond the muck. But we need to value the pessimists or we might overlook potentially dangerous obstacles.
The faith we place in positive thinking is not merely naive but fails to capture the complexities of human motivation. We either see the stick or the bone as the only two ways of motivation, but a balanced diet of pessimism and optimism can combine the bone and the stick into one prime source of motivation.
Both optimism and pessimism, can act as powerful motivators. If you realistically considered how much risk you were taking on with a new project or acknowledged how much work it would demand, you might never make the attempt. But the energizing force of optimism can convince you it will work out just long enough to turn that prediction into a reality. Likewise, pessimism about a potential outcome can thrust us to act with alacrity:
There’s nothing like a looming disaster to make us get things done.
We can look ahead and anticipate in objective terms what’s likely to happen. But optimism and pessimism bring feelings along with them, and those feelings mobilize us into action more forcefully than any rational prediction could.
Surprisingly, pessimism can be most helpful at the moments when we might seem to have the least to feel pessimistic about. When we’ve been successful before and have a realistic expectation of being successful again, we may be lulled into laziness and overconfidence.
Pessimism can give us the push that we need to try our best.
It involves imagining all the things that might go wrong in the future. It spurs us to take action to head off the potential catastrophes we conjure and prevent them from happening. This technique can effectively be employed to motivate oneself to do the very best job they can.
Pessimism can also be an effective motivator when we’re faced with an overwhelming or amorphous fear. A feeling of foreboding about an outcome can prompt us to take necessary steps that we would otherwise avoid.
The feelings that come along with optimism and pessimism serve a second function: They help us manage other emotions that might get in the way of our effectiveness. Optimism, for example, can act as a bulwark against anxiety; it fills us with an expansive sense of our own power to shape events, overruling the doubts and worries that might otherwise paralyze us into inaction. Optimism can also buoy us up when things go wrong; deluged by feelings of hopelessness and despair, optimism is the raft we cling to until the skies clear. Positive assumptions about the future may allow us to tolerate stressful situations that would otherwise be unbearable.
Although pessimism may seem like an odd choice as an emotional help-meet; it too can assist us in managing our feelings. By spinning down our expectations, it insulates us from crushing disappointment when things don’t go our way. It acts as an ego-protection strategy. It can also permit a feeling of delighted relief when, despite our self-protective pessimism, we do manage to get what we want.
This joy of pleasant surprise cannot be experienced when things happen according to your positive expectations!
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Stay tuned for further explorations into the Dark Sides of Optimism and Prevailing Pessimism on Pessimists. Until then check out,