Is Pessimism Good for You? This One Type is Surprisingly Beneficial for Mental Health
It’s worth seeing the cloud, not just the silver lining.
One of the bright sides of pessimism is that in the face of uncertainty, the pessimist is either right or pleasantly surprised. However, there’s evidence that pessimism is actually the better choice in some cases. Not that it should become anyone’s dominating viewpoint, but embracing potential negative outcomes can be healthy.
Sometimes, seeing the downside can have a concrete, positive impact on the future.
The downside of optimism
Optimistic and pessimistic attitudes are only as useful as the actions they inspire, says Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University. Her research looks at how processes related to optimism and pessimism motivate certain actions.
She says that simply imagining a better future without action can lull someone into a sense of false security.
Looking on the bright side by itself might make someone feel better in the moment, but it won’t actually change their behavior in the future, Oettingen tells Inverse. The optimist might only indulge in fantasies about things improving without actually taking action to change anything. Thus, they might be content to imagine a better future rather than act differently to create one.
Pessimistic or optimistic attitudes, she says, are based on past experiences. For example, if you have a negative experience with going to a party, you are prone to either condemn parties at large, condemn yourself as a poor guest, or look at both the situation and yourself within that specific context. If you had a bad time and do nothing about it, Oettingen says, then the outcome is doomed to repeat itself.
Diving head-first into a glass-half-empty ideology isn’t supported by science. According to researchers, healthy pessimism is best employed selectively and strategically.
“In the field of psychology, the term ‘pessimism’ is somewhat used equivocally,” Frieder Lang, chair of the psychology department at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, writes to Inverse. “There is a difference between pessimism as ‘trait,’ and pessimistic anticipations or forecast.” Lang and his colleagues have studied the latter. Their investigations yield a phenomenon that he calls “defensive pessimism,” which can be summarized by having lower expectations in the face of uncertainty.
For example, in a 2013 study, a group of older adults and a separate group of younger adults estimated their overall life satisfaction five years from then. Older adults generally underestimated future life satisfaction, while younger folks overestimated it. Lang and his co-authors followed these two groups and found that underestimating future life satisfaction was linked to a lower risk for disability and mortality over 10 or more years, even after accounting for variables like age, sex, and income. This means that death and disability occurred less over time in the older group than it did in the younger group, suggesting that actually underestimating life satisfaction is associated with positive health outcomes.
Lang qualifies that defensive pessimism is very different from a gloomy outlook on life in general. Rather, he says that defensive pessimism pertains to the realm of things largely out of one’s control. Thinking in relative terms can make the future brighter by comparison. High expectations, on the other hand, may increase the likelihood of disappointment.
These results repeated themselves in a 2019 study Lang co-authored looking at 132 Canadians between ages 72 and 98 who lived in a group setting. Once again, expectations of health — not just life satisfaction — correlated with actual outcomes of depressive symptoms and death. The risk of death was 313 percent higher among those with unrealistic optimistic expectations as opposed to realistic pessimistic views.
In other words, sometimes, if you want to accentuate the positive, you need to think negatively.
Reaching a healthy balance
Lang’s and Oettingen’s research focuses on realism, and both optimism and pessimism can reach unrealistic levels.
Pessimism isn’t always the answer, depending on how it’s positioned. Oettingen says that in some cases, pessimism may reinforce chronically low expectations, so you’d be less likely to act because you don’t see the point in putting in the effort anyway. Using pessimism as a tool requires seeing an alternative, whether it’s taking a hard look at what you can change about yourself or about the larger situation.
“If I can say, ‘This party was awful,’ well, is that a situation? Or is it because I didn't engage?” she says. The optimist might say they should attend another party, maybe this one was just a bad egg. The pessimist might say, “What could I do differently?” And if the pessimist has yet another bad party experience, they might conclude they just don’t enjoy parties and enjoy a night at home instead.
Defensive pessimism, then, helps account for more possible outcomes. It’s nice to believe in a brighter future, but seeing the downside can pay off in the long run.