In praise of pessimism


Sadly – but to pessimists, predictably – pessimism gets a bad press. This is because it is routinely assumed to be the same as, or an inevitable aspect of, depression. As the happiest and most well-adjusted person I know is a devout pessimist, I find this idea ridiculous. My friend delights in life precisely because he expects nothing of it. If he happens upon something good or beautiful, then it is a bonus, a miracle. His days are full of discoveries and consolations. His sense of humour is Cowardian and Lennonish, a knowing nod of recognition to bad news and false hopes. One of his favourite expressions is the typically vintage “Mustn’t grumble”. He is, I need hardly add, a joy to be with.

Gert thoroughly enjoyed Brian Appleyard’s article The Happiness Conspiracy: Against Optimism and the Cult of Positive Thinking, that points to the “bracing and often funny” nature of pessimism and the deleterious effects of what he calls the cult of neo-optimism in medicine, politics, economics, sociology and in the way we judge ourselves and our lives.

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14 thoughts on “In praise of pessimism

  1. I find this all very refreshing. I’ve railed against the tyranny of compulsory optimism for many years, as half you you will be aware, especially when it becomes a means of silencing dissent or opposition. Somebody has written about how the cult of optimism was at least partially responsible for the GFC, with nobody able to say ‘you know, all this borrowing and sub prime market stuff really isn’t such a great idea’ without being accused of nay saying.

  2. Yes, and of course it underlies the American dream that keeps the poor uncomplaining because they believe they will be in the position of the rich one day.
    I saw an uplifting statement in the window of my local Lorna Jane store the other day: “You can be whatever you want to be!” Er, no.
    And of course there is the motto of our character Trish, “Believe it, achieve it.”

  3. I have an automatic recoil from motivational messages. I always thought it was because I was an unmotivated slob, but have a more generous way of contextualising this these days. Barbara Ehrenreich is, I think, the writer who makes the connection between GFC and optimism. Her main concern was how cancer survival was linked to positivism by many in the optimism industry, and how devestating that is for people and their families who are not surviving.

  4. She was also the one who worked undercover as a member of the working poor for a year and discovered that, far from envying the obscenely-wealthy people they cleaned house for, they aspired one day to be just like them.

  5. Gert, rational theory must be in the air! Alain de Botton”s The Book of Life newsletter on 4/12/15 did a similar discourse on Pessimism. Actually I found it far more positive than Optimism bias which we are flooded with.
    You may be amused or enraged as my friend was, when passing a large add for Nike it said Nike Takes You Farther!

    1. What an interesting article. But do you think people are more unrealistic because they’re optimistic by nature, or optimistic because they’re more unrealistic by nature?

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