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The pleasures of pessimism

This is an article I wrote for the ma\gazine Ode. It was published in an abridged version.

Psychologically speaking, the catch phrase ‘Yes we can’ sums up a healthy mental attitude that enhances the probabilities of a life that is happily ever after. Taking the optimistic message literally, however, can have dire consequences. We may also need to appreciate the power of negativity. It is essential to acknowledge what we cannot.

Ask, believe, receive. This beautiful idea had no secrets for Andrea; it was firmly grounded in her personality. She recently discovered that the changes in her lifestyle that came with having to sit for hours in a row at a desk for her beloved new job, created bodily changes. She now has some trouble fitting into clothes that used to be loose. Although she dreads the idea she will look like her mother at middle age, she is not bothered by the first steps in this direction. Her picture of the future is as bright as ever. She has booked a holiday to a beach resort in four months, and she already imagines that she will look stunning in bathing suit. When her colleagues invite her for a drink in town, she enthusiastically agrees. She quickly takes a snack, because drinking means that dinner will be postponed.

Andrea seems a poster child of the positive psychology movement. The renowned psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman write the following in their book Character Strengths and Virtues. ‘Hope and optimism are highly valued characteristics. We admire those who can see the bright side; who can reach for the stars; who can keep their chins up, their backs straight, and their heads high; who can find the silver lining; who run out ground balls; who can see how it might all work out in the end—even if they are wrong. But often they are not wrong, because hope and optimism can be self-fulfilling.’

Four months later, Andrea needs to go shopping for a bathing suit that flatters her new figure. This makes her hurt for a moment, but her optimistic outlook soon offers a way out. After the holidays are over she will take dieting more seriously. After all, how hard can it be? She likes healthy foods, and taking more time for cooking will erase most of her unhealthy eating habits. No need to panic. She already pictures herself during the next summer vacation, looking great. For the next weeks in Mexico she will enjoy the sun, the fun and the food.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and positive thinking. But isn’t optimism supposed to make you perform better and even make you live longer? The German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has done extensive research on the subject. One of the cruxes is the distinction between positive fantasies and expectations. She followed obese women who enrolled in a weight reduction training. Those who expected that this program would be a success lost an average of 26 pounds more weight than the women who were skeptical about their prospects. On the other hand, positive fantasies about the future had an opposite effect. Women who thought that it would be easy to resist the leftover box of donuts in the lunchroom, lost on average 24 pounds fewer than women whit negative fantasies about hard times resisting temptation.

The chain of asking, believing and receiving is broken for women with positive fantasies about slim selves. The same happens for students with positive fantasies about finding a well-suited job or about getting a relationship with a secretly admired individual. The fare worse than people with negative fantasies. The story can be repeated for older patients fantasizing about what they will be able of after hip replacement surgery.

According to Oettingen, the missing link between believing and receiving is action. Self-fulfilling positive thought can be a myth. Positive expectations lead to positive outcomes, when they motivate people to do something. If you have a health check-up at your general practitioner and she tells you that you have elevated cholesterol levels and a worrying blood pressure, and she urges you to make some lifestyle changes, then there are three possible reactions.

The fist explains why everybody is so enthusiastic about optimism. An optimist recognizes that he just received a grave wake-up call, but still expects that something might be done to prevent serious complications. He first starts an intensive search on internet about the medications prescribed. He decides that they might be of benefit and to take the pills every day. In addition he tries to reduces the stresses of working life and takes the time to go to the gym on a regular basis. This in turn may postpone or even prevent heart failure.

A patient fantasizing about healthy futures and good genes that will protect him from any harm, will ignore the warning signs, and may later pay the price. The response of a diehard pessimist is very similar, although he arrives there at a very different route. After hearing the bad news he may think of a relative that died early of heart attack and conclude that the future is gloom. There is nothing to advert it. Simply ignoring the warning sign as best as possible, though losing sleep at night because of rumination, seems the only option for him.

Positive fantasies harm people in essentially the same way as pessimism. Fantasies makes you consume a bright future in your fantasy, because you already enjoy all the good things to come in the here and now. Fantasy conceals the necessity to act. You do not have to put effort in getting the attention of your would be lover, because he will see how wonderful you are anyway. You do not have to hunt for a nice job, because employers will recognize your talents. You do not have to exercise muscle strength, because your new hip will make you walk effortlessly.

To make the picture even bleaker, you can think of an analogy with addictions. Taking excessive amount of alcohol makes you feel good when you are intoxicated, so you don’t care too much about your mistakes at work and the arguments with your nagging family members. Getting the sack and a divorce are real possibilities now, and in a typical abuse career, you make a mess of your life over the years. You end up being so miserable, that you need more alcohol to forget about it. Yet you remain optimistic about the what alcohol might do for you.

The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich uses this kind of reasoning in her book Bright-sided; How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. When she was diagnosed as having breast cancer, she was very upset. But when she reached out for support and understanding and voiced her resentment or anger on the internet, her fellow sufferers were quick to advise her ‘to run and not to walk to see a therapist’. All negative experiences were condemned for they might hinder recovery.  The most extreme positive thinkers urged her to reconstruct breast cancer as a gift deserving heartfelt gratitude. For Ehrenreich this added injury to insult and she maintains that she would have skipped the disease from her gift lift for Christmas.

In an interview with Democracy now, she tells that her book could also be called: what I learned from breast cancer to help me understand the financial meltdown. The problem is the thought that nothing in the material world can hinder you as long as you have the right frame of mind and a positive mental attitude. Giving mortgages to people who could not afford them, was never going to be a problem because bankers believed that house prizes could not go down. Reality was a thing not to be reckoned with.

The American psychologist, and prominent scholar of optimism, Lisa Aspinwall, characterizes this attitude in a recent discussion in The Annals of Behavioral Medicine as ‘saccharine terrorism, victim-blaming, and the promotion of mindless versions of positive thinking for personal gain’. Shallow optimists and pessimists have the same problem in life. They do not know how to deal with the negatives. For pessimists there is nothing to hope for, for shallow optimists there is nothing to escape from.

The problem is that the inability to deal with reality in some forms of optimism is not always recognized. An example comes from the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. In his book Authentic happiness he describes research on people selling insurances on the telephone, one of the most depressing jobs imaginable. Again and again you have to summon the courage to make another call, just to get another grumpy refusal. Seligman discovered that three quarters of the insurance sellers resign within a year, but optimists last twice as long and they sell forty percent more insurances. The optimists did perform better, but if optimism is going to make me stick into an unhealthy job, than I prefer to be pessimistic.  Giving up and resignation from previous set goals are important parts of life. Negative feelings help us in this process.

Oettinger therefore recommends a strategy that reconciles a benefits of positive and negative views on the future. Positive expectations are used to ‘just do it’, and negative aspects of reality as serious warning signs that delineate the areas of life that we should try to avoid. We can Andrea as an example. Het optimism about future slim selves are more likely to become reality is they are contrasted with nasty aspects of reality. She knows how much she likes to have company, and that will not refuse invitation, so therefore it will be hard for her to find the time everyday again to cook a healthy meal. If she acknowledges these and other  obstacles in reality, and allow herself to appreciate how hard they are to overcome, she will feel forced to think of a strategy that will prevent putting on weight while dreaming of being slim.

Psychological research  by Oettingen has shown that this strategy of mental contrasting, that incorporates the negatives of current reality into optimism of the future, has a positive effect on academic achievement, job performance, personal relationships and health behavior. The idea of the self-help industry that thinking positive think is the single most effective means to getting what we want needs some reconsideration.

Lisa Aspinwall has won the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize for her work that reconciles optimism and the negatives by changing the definition of optimism. She no longer puts the positive expectations of the future in the center of the attention, but the ability to appreciate the negatives. In her new concept, she use an old maxim; One needs the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the differences. In the conception of Aspinwall optimists are masters of the first part of the maxim, and therefore perform  better on the courage and the wisdom.

In a psychological lab the effect can be shown with a ‘nonproductive persistence paradigm’. In one such a study participants were recruited to perform a test of verbal intelligence. Participants were given a 20- minute time limit and a list of twenty anagrams to solve. The first seven anagrams were unsolvable, although this was not communicated to the participants. It turned out that optimistic participants in the study solved more puzzles, because they disengaged approximately four  minutes earlier from the unsolvable anagrams, than the pessimistic participants. Aspinwall concluded that optimists are more successful on solvable tasks, because they locate less time and effort on problems that cannot be solved.

The effect of accepting the things we cannot change in real life van perhaps be demonstrated with two famous quotes. The first is by the French writer Voltaire: ‘We shall leave this world as foolish and as wicked as we found it on our arrival’? The first impulse may be to disregard this statement as needlessly pessimistic. Not everything we do is in vain. But let us take a look at the same thought from a slightly different angle. Science fiction writer Larry Eisenberg gave us the following advice: ‘For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.’ Isn’t this also a comforting thought? It releases you from the pressure to change the world, and creates room to find satisfaction in the insignificant, but important contributions that you might be able of.

The American psychologist Julie Norem thinks that pessimism can have liberating effects. ‘If you put on a T-shirt with the phrase “The worst is yet to come” signed by the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, you send out the message that people cannot expect you to be happy and successful al the time. It can be comforting to prepare for disaster, so that you will not be overly surprised and thrown down when it strikes. It may help to tolerate the negatives.’

Pessimism and complaining about what goes wrong, can have a liberating effect. The American psychologist Barbara Held thinks that it can help people escape from what she calls the ‘Tyranny of the positive attitude’. Held: ‘If people feel bad about life’s many difficulties and they cannot manage to transcend their pain no matter how hard they try, they could end up feeling even worse; they could feel guilty or defective for not having the right (positive) attitude, in addition to whatever was ailing them in the first place. This is a possible unintended consequence of trumpeting positivity.’ The problem with positivity is that it implies that every negativity is bad and makes all drawbacks even worse. It offers no room to cry it out and start again.

Held started her career in liberating negativity at a conference for psychotherapists in 1996. She was asked how she handled the frustrations of her trade and own personal problems. And while other psychotherapists advised their colleagues to talk to a trusted therapist and to take a walk in woods to enjoy nature, she confessed that she herself complained to friends. The arm around her shoulder they provided was very soothing.

Held’s talk GOT such a huge response from the crowd that she wrote a self-help book called Stop smiling, start kvetching:  A 5-step guide to creative complaining (kvetching is the Yiddish word for complaining). ‘Creative kvetching enables you to connect with people when you're in pain so you're not so alone,’ Held says. ‘Finding words for what is wrong, helps you to think about your predicament in new ways, so it helps you to reorganize your thoughts and get unstuck.’ Held advises to use this medicine with care. If you complain to somebody who does not wants to listen, and simply tries to end the discussion with platitudes such as ‘tomorrow everything will look better’ or ‘cheer up’,  you alienate yourself from others and you may suffer negative consequences. You need a willing listener who also can find solace despite negativity.

The attentive reader may feel uncomfortable by now. We started with the gospel of ‘yes we can’, and have drifted to a South Park cynical view on world, even praising pessimism. First pessimism is equated with ostrich policies, and now it is praised. Certainly not both can be right? The honest answer is: yes. We started praising optimism, but were forced by the research outcomes to delineate its possibilities. Optimism doesn’t help you if it forces you to continue walking on a dead end street, and optimism and may serious hinder you if makes you lose contact with reality.

For pessimism we started in an opposite depression.  Common wisdom is that pessimism is bad. Or as the renowned positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson put it: ‘The opposites of hope and optimism include pessimism, hopelessness, gloom, and helplessness, none of them remotely desirable.’ They are right that negativity may prevent taking opportunities in life and it may make you waste your time on the sofa, because the world has nothing good to offer anyway. This is probably true for most situations and most people.

Still if take a closer look we can also find clear instances in which pessimism makes people flourish. We already mentioned the critical role in life that is played by disengagement. It disrupts the chain of hoping and failing, and enables you to find options in life that may better suit you. Above that the research by psychologist Julie Norem has shown that negativity has powers that go far beyond that.  Pessimism can enhance performance, because for anxious people it does not stimulate passivity, but positive action.

Norem calls this strategy defensive pessimism. This cognitive strategy is used by high performing people. They set low expectations for future performances. This helps them to ‘cushion’ the potential blow of failure. They feel they will fail, and the possible consequences of failure are dwelled upon. There is no need to worry anymore, because the grave reality is accepted.  The negative consequences are then thought of seriously enough to put enough effort in preventing disasters from  happening. For anxious people defensive pessimism for example leads to good performances an exams, that are threatened when they try to employ a more optimistic strategy.

Norem gives the example of an expert public speaker, who always makes a lasting impression on the audience, but still is nervous every time he has to perform again. He asserts that he is going to embarrass himself on the next occasion. He can see himself tripling over the microphone cord, so he makes sure it is taped to the ground. He thinks his powerpoint presentation will not run on the computer, so he sends in the presentation by email and makes sure it is properly installed before he arrives. He fears to lose a copy of the speech, so he takes two copies with him. Another excellent speech is the result, and the secret of his success is that next time his worries will guarantee another excellent preparation.

Barabara Held concludes that we should applaud the energy and the positive feelings of optimism, but we should not condemn pessimism. In some occasions and for some people it might work wonders. Held: ‘I personally am the opposite of a positive thinker. When I was 3.5 years old, I organized a strike against Santa Claus among my class mates, because I had learned the basic rule for small kids in New York city:  not to take candy from strangers. The teacher afterwards asked my parents to discipline me, because I spoiled the party. They refused. They supported me for doing what they taught me to do.´

Held: ´I have been a pain in the ass ever since, always challenging conventional wisdom, but my parents never stopped nurturing me. I was allowed to be my authentic self, to complain when I thought it necessary, and this certainly still works for me. My parents are 85 and 91 and I consider myself very lucky to still have them around. I do not think that I could have been this happy, if they would have forced me to be positive all the time.´