Things can often be more clearly defined by contrasting them with what they are not, and Hope is no exception to this. We can add a great depth of understanding to our conception of this state and process by exploring the reasons behind lacking Hope and the impacts of not cultivating it in our lives.
Another term that has been debated in definition, Hopelessness has come to be understood as an essential component of depression, and even predicts suicidal ideation more than depression alone (Nekanda-Trepka et al. 1983)(Kovacs et al. 1975). If we take it that Hope includes the belief that the future will be better, you have the ability to make it so, and there are multiple ways to get there, Hopelessness includes negative expectations of the future, a lack of self-efficacy, and a lack of pathways.
|Agency||Has belief in personal ability to affect change||Does not have belief in personal ability|
|Pathways||Comes up with several concrete ways of achieving a goal||Does not come up with /see ways to achieve goal|
Hopelessness theory was explored in the context of depression and was a reworking of Dr. Seligman’s Learned Helplessness theory. It relies heavily on the pessimistic explanatory style for determining Hopeless states.
If you recall the Learned Helplessness experiments, Seligman concluded in the sixties that we can be conditioned to be helpless by being continually exposed to events in which we have no control over the outcome. Because our efforts have been shown to be ineffectual in the past, we develop a Pessimistic Explanatory Style and learn to stop trying or give up in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, there are some ugly side effects to this conditioned way of interpreting reality:
- Less persistence and therefore more failure and fewer risks being taken
- Promotes depression
Hopelessness Theory essentially argues that a Pessimistic Explanatory Style leads to depression, versus the idea that helplessness alone creates depression.
What Type of Pessimist Are You? Take our quiz to find out!
While an Optimistic Explanatory Style explains negative events as temporary, circumstantial, and not their fault, someone with a Pessimistic Explanatory Style explains them as permanent, pervasive, and their fault.
|Pessimistic Explanations of Negative Events|
|Causing a car accident
||I am never going to be able to drive safely||This would have happened no matter where I was or what was going on||I am terrible at driving and incapable of paying attention|
|Being diagnosed with cancer
||I will not survive this||There is nothing I can do to increase my odds of survival or my sense of fulfillment||I couldn’t control myself when it came to smoking|
|A loved one passes away
||I am never going to recover from this grief||Nothing in my life has meaning any more||I didn’t show them enough how much I loved them|
*Pessimistic and Optimistic Explanatory Styles are similar to Growth Mindsets.
Do You Feel Lucky?
Believing you are Lucky reflects this strange quality of Optimism and Pessimism to flip qualities when it comes to interpreting positive or negative events. Believing you are lucky qualifies as a Pessimistic Explanatory Style in that it doesn’t explain positive events as the result of your actions; rather, it places them out beyond your control.
- “I got lucky when they chose to do business with us.”
However, to claim you are unlucky in the face of a negative event DOES qualify as an Optimistic Explanatory Style in that it explains a bad event in the same manner.
- “It was just bad luck that their company decided not to sell to us anymore.”
However, there is a catch with feeling lucky! Even though believing something may have happened through luck is technically Pessimistic, feeling lucky or believing that you are an inherently lucky person may create more positive events in your life.
How Lucky Are You? Take our quiz to find out!
The shoe company Zappos actually uses a Luck assessment in its hiring process. Based on an experiment that showed lucky people were more likely to find a hidden clue that gave them a greater reward in a planned activity, the CEO of Zappos decided he wanted to hire people who would be curious and receptive to opportunities: the self-proclaimed lucky folks.
According to Richard Wiseman, a psychologist who spent ten years studying people who considered themselves lucky or unlucky, “Lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles.
- They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities,
- make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition,
- create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations,
- and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.”24
These four principles sound similar to the perspective benefits of being Hopeful. It creates a complicated caveat for understanding the role of believing ourselves to be effective agents in the world.
The impacts of concepts like luck make it difficult to determine if Optimism or Pessimism are clear cut good or bad perspectives, and it offers that there isn’t a perfectly clean line distinguishing them. Later on, we’ll discuss the differences between and details of Healthy Pessimism and Unhealthy Optimism.
Modern Cultural Pessimism
According to cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author Steven Pinker, Pessimism is culturally popular and pessimistic people are generally perceived as more intelligent than optimists. When you get into a debate with someone regarding the most objective lens to perceive life through, pessimists will likely argue for the realism in their stance compared to the rose-tinted filter of the Optimist. It is important to keep in mind, though, that as beings that interpret all information we encounter to put together ‘reality’, we can never be 100% objective. Due to the nature of our biology, we are prone to distort information.
We’ll get further into those distortions in a minute. Right now, let’s look at some surprising facts. The popular opinion expressed in the media is that the world, overall, is in poor condition and things are getting worse. This idea is known as “declinism.” It’s popular for several reasons and, from an objective and statistical stance, is actually grossly inaccurate.
In 2018, Steven Pinker published Enlightenment Now, detailing the statistics on global progress since the 1700s (and as far back as we have data in some cases) in the categories of health, wealth, happiness, inequality, environment, quality of life, safety, sustenance, and beyond. His conclusions from this data is that declinism is a myth and human wellbeing in all of these areas has significantly improved— and exponentially so, over time.
Key global points of progress from Enlightenment Now:
- Life expectancy has risen from 30 to 71 (or even 81 in some countries) since the 18th century.
- 33% of kids born in the richest areas died before 5 years old in the 18th century, now less than 6% die before 5 in the poorest areas.
- Fatal infectious diseases in the poorest countries are steadily decreasing.
- The world is 200x wealthier than 200 years ago and the wealth is more evenly distributed.
- In the past 200 years, the amount of people in extreme poverty has fallen from 90% to 10%.
- Catastrophic famine has vanished and undernourishment and stunting are in steady decline.
- War has declined and war-related deaths have plummeted in the last century alone.
- Safety has increased; the likelihood of dying in a plane crash, car accident, by fire, by drowning, or at work has declined from 59% to 99% in the past century.
- 200 years ago 1% of the world lived in democratic societies and today 2/3rds of the global population do.
- Since the early 19th century literacy has risen from 12% to 83%.
- There is now far more leisure time available due to technological advances and basic living necessities becoming cheaper.
- On average, people claim to be at 7/10 when asked to rate their happiness from 1-10, 10 being total bliss.
This data is by no means intended to convince anyone to toss aside their concerns about global issues and blindly trust that everything will work out perfectly for the humans on planet Earth. Enlightenment Now is not without criticism(1,2). This list is here to illustrate the biases we carry culturally.
Hans Rosling on why most of the world is better off than you think
In this brief interview Hans Rosling explains why despite global inequalities, most of the world is better off than you think – and better off than it has ever been before.
In this article for Wired, President Barack Obama details the incredible innovations and progress of modern day America.
- “Just since 1983, when I finished college, things like crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, and poverty rates are all down. Life expectancy is up. The share of Americans with a college education is up too. Tens of millions of Americans recently gained the security of health insurance. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks to lead our businesses and communities. Women are a larger part of our workforce and are earning more money. Once-quiet factories are alive again, with assembly lines churning out the components of a clean-energy age.”
- “And just as America has gotten better, so has the world. More countries know democracy. More kids are going to school. A smaller share of humans know chronic hunger or live in extreme poverty. In nearly two dozen countries—including our own—people now have the freedom to marry whomever they love. And last year the nations of the world joined together to forge the most comprehensive agreement to battle climate change in human history.”
Author Mark Manson theorizes that our sense of declinism comes from a lack of something he calls “anti-fragility,” in his book, “Everything is F*cked, A Book About Hope.” Manson explains that as our standard of living has increased in developed countries, we have not had the same opportunities to mature through hardship as previous generations. Because most of us have not been exposed to the suffering of things like famine, war, and rampant infectious disease, we are fragile as individuals and as a society. He claims that our perspective on what is bad, tragic, or unfair has been skewed by our sensitivity, leading us to interpret current events as far worse than they are in the scheme of more significant timescales.
Clearly, modern circumstances are far from perfect. However, in light of the research on Hope, cultural Pessimism deflates our ability to address the issues of our times. Hope theory tells us that by narrowly focusing on information that implies our failure as a species, we are less likely to try to do something about it. When we allow ourselves to be encouraged by data that shows progress and outlines multiple pathways for achieving the next series of societal ideals, we can energize ourselves and make them more probable.
The News is Naturally Negative
You’re not alone if the above data surprised you. In fact, you’ve been neurologically primed to pay attention to negativity and have been exposed to a disproportionate amount of negative information in the news. To summarize Steven Pinker’s points in “Enlightenment Now,” the media reports negative information more often than positive for a few reasons:
- News focuses on events that occur, and oftentimes good things that are occuring are the absence of bad events, so they do not appear to be events.
- IE. People consistently having access to clean water and food, or, the absence of famine.
- Negative news stories occur on a shorter time scale (they’re more immediate) than positive stories.
- IE. A school shooting occurs vs a school’s graduation rates increasing by 40% over 5 years
- Negative stories are more provocative and will increase viewership. Media outlets need to maintain high-levels of viewership to profit or simply stay in business.
Check out your local news headlines today. How many of them inspire anxiety or worry? “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Here’s what happened when a news site only reported good news for a day
The City Reporter conducted an experiment to report only good news for a day. They lost 2/3rds of their readership that day alone.
These factors in determining what gets reported combine with our cognitive biases and cause us to believe that things are worse than they really are.
Do you see little dots racing around this grid? This is an example of an optical illusion, a trick your brain plays on your perception as you try to process the available visual information. Because of how our brains are wired, we interpret information that isn’t actually there- the dots. This automaticity is similar to how Cognitive biases function.
A Cognitive Bias is a systemic error in information processing which predisposes us to inaccuracy when our brains try to make interpreting information simpler. We would not have cognitive biases if they did not serve us in certain circumstances. However, they are often misleading in the face of modern circumstances and can result in poor judgment.
Wikipedia’s definition of Cognitive Bias:
“A systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.”
|Availability Heuristic||We make judgments about how likely something is based on how easily an example of it occurring comes to mind.||Hearing stories about murder in the news. Because there are frequent news stories about murder, we may believe it is more likely to happen to us than it is.||The information we seek out, are exposed to, and choose to pay attention to affects this. *This can easily perpetuate optimistic views as well.|
|Confirmation Bias||We seek out information that confirms what we already believe and discard information that may challenge it.||If you believe all old people are senile, you’re more likely to notice cognitive challenges that an older person you know experiences than the mental actions they do with ease.||*This can easily perpetuate optimistic views as well.|
|Negativity Bias||We are more sensitive to and therefore pay more attention to negative information than positive information.3,4||Negative news coverage gets more attention than positive news coverage.||Negative information was very important to the survival of our ancestors. We needed to be on the outlook for threats and may have developed this bias to help us stay alert to them.|
|Impact Bias||We overestimate the duration or intensity of how an event will emotionally impact us in the future.||You may expect the grief following the loss of a loved one to last forever, when research shows that we return to baseline after traumatic events more quickly than we expect.||After a negative event, this bias can cause us to catastrophize into the future.|
Our Biases Work Together
The negativity bias plays with the availability heuristic to cause us to find far more negative information than is representative of the truth. Once we develop a belief that things are awful, our confirmation bias will help us notice more negative information to support that belief. And finally, our impact bias will cause us to believe that things will continue to stay awful far longer than they actually might.
LUCKILY, we’re not doomed to this downward spiral. We can learn to interpret events differently. We are empowered to do this through awareness of our conditioning and our ability to consciously choose what to pay attention to and believe.
Where did Pessimism Come From and What is its Purpose?
Just as cognitive biases evolved to help us survive, there are theories about what Pessimism could have done for our ancestors.
Seligman’s dog experiments (and subsequently the related research done by others on people) lead him to conclude that we may learn helplessness as a survival strategy. When we learn to be helpless, we’ve learned that our efforts are not producing results, so we stop engaging with the relevant challenges. By avoiding a challenge, we are no longer ‘wasting’ precious energy on efforts that will not produce beneficial outcomes. This strategy is an excellent survival tool when a threat is beyond our capacity to overcome (such as fighting a bear alone). However, carrying that strategy forward into not only the modern era, but changing circumstances may prevent us from realizing possibilities in our lives.
You can look at it as two kinds of learned helplessness- one that serves us and one that does not, depending on what’s at stake.
|Helplessness Type 1||Helplessness Type 2|
|“There’s no point in doing this, nothing is going to change. Life sucks.”||“The cost/benefit ratio of investing my time in this isn’t worth it because the odds of success are so low. Some things reasonably suck, and that’s okay.”|
|Low stakes (relatively)||High stakes|
|Repeated failure in dating, in that several dates have not led to a deeper or exciting connection.||Repeated failure in keeping a business afloat in the face of another monumental setback.|
|Ultimately unserving when your objective is to create connection in your life.||Ultimately serving when your objective is to stay solvent.|
Even in terms of physiology, while Hope is an activating and energizing state, Pessimism is deactivating and de-energizing. Seligman claimed in “Learned Optimism,” that helplessness is related to a more passive immune system. Gabriele Oettingen’s research on fantasizing5 showed that more engagement with challenges increased systolic blood pressure and created more motivation for goal pursuit. These findings imply that pessimistic views de-energize our system, while Hopeful views can energize us for potential pitfalls ahead.
Although it may be confusing how a passifying strategy could be beneficial to us in our modern lives, Pessimism has helped us survive and still plays a valuable role. Pessimists are more accurate judges over how much control they have over a situation, while optimists think they have far more than they actually do.6 Negative emotions, in general, helped our ancestors pay attention to threats to their survival. They served as a short-term survival strategy, causing us to react quickly in dangerous situations. Negative emotions cause us to narrow our focus, helping us stay particularly alert.7
|Negative States/Emotions||Positive States/Emotions|
The Wisdom of Pessimism
This video from The School of Life explains the value of defensive Pessimism wielded in a stoic manner for managing your expectations in life.
Depending on the situation, these approaches serve different functions.
|Adverse Situation||Negative Emotion/State Response||Positive Emotion/State Response|
||Feeling fear may cause you to want to avoid fighting with the tiger and motivate you to run away or hide.||Feeling confident and brave may cause you to engage in fighting with the tiger.|
||Feeling angry may cause you to shut down and avoid your partner.||Feeling hopeful may cause you to try to communicate and resolve the conflict.|
|Not getting a promotion you wanted
||Feeling disappointed may cause you to reduce your effort at work.||Feeling optimistic may motivate you to continue to try harder to get it next time.|
|Trying to lose weight but not having instant results
||Feeling frustrated may cause you to give up.||Feeling open may lead you to persist.|
|Getting a terminal diagnosis
||Feeling hopeless may lead you to resign to the diagnosis and accept it.||Feeling hopeful may lead you to educate yourself thoroughly on the disease and try to heal.|
As you can see, either approach serves a different function in each scenario. Negative responses can protect us from challenges that are too risky, while positive responses can motivate us to persist. The danger lies in unconsciously defaulting to one strategy or the other.
Check out our Freedom section to learn about how to consciously choose your strategies by learning to master your thoughts.
The Impacts of Pessimism
When we directly compare the effects of Pessimism and Optimism, a few trends appear.
- Pessimistic people are more likely to be depressed. (Seligman 2006)(Zenger et al. 2011)(Chang et al. 2013)
- Pessimistic people have higher rates of anxiety. (Snyder et al. 2002)
- Pessimistic people are diagnosed with twice as many infectious diseases and make twice as many doctor visits as Optimists. (Dykema et al. 1995)
The Science of Optimism: How Your Outlook Predicts Your Lifespan
Sociologist William Magee explains his research conclusions that Optimists live longer than Pessimists despite age, gender, economic standing or ethnicity.
The health differences, Seligman theorizes, are due to immune system suppression. He argues that because the brain influences the immune system through the release of hormones, the system responds to the hormonal signatures of depression, grief, and stress, and it passifies to conserve energy.6
When it comes to depression, studies have shown that Pessimism precedes and predicts it. Seligman explains that a pessimistic explanatory style doesn’t necessitate depression, but when combined with rumination, it does lead to it. Rumination is dwelling on an idea, continually thinking about something over and over. If you are constantly reminding yourself that you do not have control over things, that adverse events are your fault, and that things will be that way forever, depression seems like a natural consequence. Professor of psychology Lyn Abramson and her colleagues argued that a pessimistic explanatory style combined with a negative expectation of the future (“Hopelessness”) was responsible for depression (Abramson et al. 1989). They were able to demonstrate that Hopelessness is the strongest predictor of suicide among depressives (Abramson et al. 2002)(Huen et al. 2015), and another study showed that Hopelessness predicted higher mortality rates among older populations(Stern et al. 2001).
“Wishes are mental fast food.” – Dr. Shane Lopez
Positive fantasizing is often associated with optimism. Perhaps this is why optimists often get the bad rap of having their head in the clouds. Fantasy is the sunny-side future vision without the practical, grounded elements of Hope. Fantasy without Hope has been shown to have an adverse effect on goal achievement and sense of self.
Fantasizing, essentially, is like wishing. It is dreaming of a positive outcome. It does not include pathways and may not include a sense of self-efficacy.
Gabriele Oettingen focused the majority of her research career on the impacts of positive fantasies. In one study, she gathered participants who wanted to lose weight and asked them to fantasize about how they would feel when they met their goals. Interestingly enough, those in the study who had very positive fantasies ultimately turned out to lose very little to no weight by their goal deadline, whereas the participants whose fantasies involved how challenged they would feel by the process lost more weight (Oettingen & Wadden 1991).
It is the basis for self-help ideas like The Secret, urging us that all one has to do to have something happen is to believe in it and visualize it. Fantasizing is a completely normal thing to do and it feels wonderful to engage in. A word of caution, however, as fantasies may take the energy required to accomplish your goals away from you.
In a study by social psychologist Dr. Heather Barry Kappes, participants were directed to fantasize that their upcoming week was an ideal week, and write about all the things that they would accomplish. The control group was told to simply write down what they expected to get done that week from a neutral, non-idealizing stance. After writing about their visions for the week, participants were asked how energized they felt. The group that had fantasized about the ideal week reported feeling relaxed, and their systolic blood pressure readings reflected this. A week later, the group who had not fantasized had actually accomplished more of what they had expected to get done than the group who had fantasized(Kappes & Oettingen 2011).
Envisioning the outcomes you desire is not a bad thing. In fact, it is essential to creating pathways and understanding what you want. The key to productive, energizing fantasies is to fantasize about overcoming specific obstacles and challenges. This is known as mental contrasting, a strategy you can learn more about on our Practice and Exercises page.
“Progress does not take place like a shot out of a pistol; it takes the labor and suffering of the negative. How to use the negative as a way to advance the positive is our challenge.” – Grace Lee Boggs; Author, social activist, philosopher and feminist
Fantasizing has the same characteristics as the other negative emotions/states we discussed in the section on where pessimism comes from. Fantasizing provides us something instantly over a short-term time frame: relief and comfort. Dr. Shane Lopez refers to fantasizing as “mental fast food,” in that it is easy to access, you may consume it with pleasure, but ultimately it does not nourish you. He says the benefits of fantasizing are “fleeting unless your thoughts spark action. Only hope starts you thinking about ways to save money for that trip to the ocean and your lodging when you get there.”18
Healthy Pessimism and Unhealthy Optimism
As we’ve alluded to several times, Pessimism and Optimism evolved to benefit our survival in different ways. Both Optimism and Pessimism are filled with unexpected nuance, and both have a role In the realm of Hope. While it may seem like Optimism is the only candidate for contributing to Hope, Pessimism also has its role (depending on how you look at it!).
Optimism and Pessimism can both be constructive, but both perspectives have unsavory counterparts that do more harm than good for those that wield them.
|Healthy||Healthy Optimism is an Optimistic Explanatory Style||Healthy Pessimism are explanations that are “specific and correctable”|
|Unhealthy||Unhealthy Optimism is insincere positivity, fantasizing, or extreme optimism.||Unhealthy Pessimism
Is constituted by dwelling and rumination, and it contributes to depression.
Outside the context of Optimism as it is framed for Hope, there are unhealthy ways to be optimistic.
Fantasy we have already covered. Wishing provides short-term relief. It is not unhealthy, per se, but because it has a pacifying effect, it can negatively impact your ability to achieve what you desire.
Pollyanna is a term coined from a character in an early 20th century story about a child with an upbeat disposition and unrealistically positive perspective on her reality. Calling someone a Pollyanna has taken on a negative connotation, implying that the person is out of touch because they refuse to acknowledge the negative aspects of a situation. Being overly optimistic can prevent us from preparing for risks or hazards (because we don’t expect there to be any!).
Extreme Optimism is correlated with riskier health and economic choices. Those who expect everything to go well smoke more, spend more, and work less 19(Puri & Robinson 2007). While a Hopeful optimist acknowledges future challenges and still believes they are capable of overcoming them, Pollyanna avoids preparation for challenges because she doesn’t believe they will occur.
“Optimism is like red wine: A glass a day is good for you, but a bottle a day is dangerous.” – Manju Puri and David Robinson
Toxic Positivity is being positive when it is not truly how you’re feeling. It is toxic because it can have a negative impact on your health and relationships by fostering insincerity. Worse than not reaping the benefits of positive emotion, insincerity can raise cortisol levels and may increase the risks of coronary failure. (Rosenberg et al. 2001)(Williams 1998)
Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes
This video produced by The Psychology Group of Fort Lauderdale covers what toxic positivity is, toxic positivity behaviors, why it’s damaging, and strategies for moving away from it in your life.
They define Toxic Positivity as:
“Excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations that results in denial, minimization, invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
“Negativity is important. Nobody can flourish without it. Even the happiest people cry when they lose someone or something they cherish. They’re angered by injustice and frightened by danger. Their stomachs turn when they see vomit or witness human atrocities… There’s no emotion that needs to be forever shunned or repressed.” – Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, “Positivity”
Pessimism is not bad and in need of abolishment. In fact, Dr. Fredrickson argues that because negative emotions have their place and serve a function for our emotional well-being, we should aim for a ratio of 3:1 positive to negative emotions and states in our lives (and in relationships specifically, researcher John Gottman says 5:1 during conflict and 20:1 generally). As we talked about earlier, negative emotions help narrow our focus and meet survival needs (hunger motivates eating, thirst motivates drinking, anger motivates defending ourselves). However, considering there are so many negative side effects, what Pessimism is permissible or even helpful?
Fredrickson’s ratio has some criticism, but it is still impactful generally to increase positive emotions over negative.
While a pessimistic explanatory style sees events as permanent and global, Fredrickson claims that appropriate negativity is negativity that is specific and correctable. These qualifiers can ground our negative thoughts and frame them in an optimistic explanatory style.
|Adverse Event||Healthy Negative Interpretation||Unhealthy Negative Interpretation|
|Losing money on an investment||I made a poor, uneducated decision around investing in that particular company at this time.||I’m terrible with money and will never make it back.|
|Being broken up with||I was passive-aggressive in that relationship and did not put effort into listening to my partner’s needs.||I am ugly and undesirable.|
|Your child is failing a class in school||I have not been as present as I would like when my child asks for help with homework.||I’m a bad parent and nothing I do will actually support my kid’s learning.|
A pessimistic explanatory style can condemn us to helplessness or hopelessness, because it puts us in the dangerous position of being without agency.
Hopelessness: A combination of pessimism, lack of belief in one’s ability to affect change, and a lack of strategies to do so.
Helplessness: A learned condition that occurs when we repeatedly fail to create the change we desire in a particular context. Due to the lack of effect, we cease to try.
Helplessness, Hopelessness, and Pessimism itself can be fueled by traumatic life events. While Helplessness and Hopelessness are states that do not serve us, negative emotions are natural and inevitable, especially in the face of things like grief and loss. We have an extensive section of the website dedicated to holding, processing, and understanding Grief and Loss that we highly recommend checking out if you are seeking more depth on the topic of negative emotions.
Are Intelligent People More Pessimistic?
This video details the necessity of Pessimism in our lives and explores how one can balance this with reasonable Optimism.
- Life sets us up to expect positive things when we are young, but as we grow older we learn that this isn’t entirely true and can develop a pessimistic perspective.
- By recognizing both the intelligence of optimism and pessimism together, we can utilize both to our advantage.
“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” – George Bernard Shaw
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” – Alexander Pope
Defensive Pessimism is using a negative expectation of an event to motivate preparation for it. For example, in the 1980’s it became a popular tool for students trying to manage anxiety in school. Research demonstrated that students who expected to do poorly on an exam and were anxious about it would use that anxiety to motivate over-preparation for the exam, thus doing well. Those who argue for defensive Pessimism also laud its ability to mitigate disappointment in the event of failure. The philosophy summed up: By expecting a negative event, you are motivated to prepare for it and are protected from the pain of it should it come to pass.
In some ways, defensive Pessimism sounds like the pathways element of Hope, in that it acknowledges challenges and plans for overcoming them. The danger of defensive Pessimism lies in the risk of incorporating a pessimistic explanatory style. Defensive Pessimism outside the framework of Hope may leave you with a persistent fear of failure and low self-esteem, making you at risk for depression if you have a tendency to dwell. This cannot prepare you to be resilient in the face of unexpected adversity or shield you from the pain of failure.
This Quiz from researcher Julie Norem helps you determine if you’re a Defensive Pessimist.
The Wisdom of Pessimism
This video from The School of Life explains how having a stoically pessimistic perspective of life enables us to manage our expectations and create more joy through less disappointment and anxiety.
“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” – Antonio Gramsci, Philosopher
In the midst of optimists, a pessimist may often defend themselves as a “realist.” While it is true that pessimists have a more accurate perception of the influence they have over a situation, this knowledge limits them from taking risks and seeing possibility (Alloy & Abramson 1979)(Butler et al. 1991). Shane Lopez claims that Hopeful people have the most realistic perspective because they both acknowledge possibility and account for obstacles they may encounter.
The Case For Realistic Optimism for TEDx
Ray Poole, retired football player, argues for the value of grounded Optimism through the story of his wife’s struggle with cystic fibrosis.
Can Hope be a Bad Thing?
How could a positive experience that enables us to survive and thrive ever do us any damage? The type of Hope we’re exploring here isn’t likely to lead you down any undesirable avenues in life. However, if misunderstood or used without care, there are ways that Hope could be detrimental to your wellbeing. One is in the realm of False Hopes and the other is when Hope removes you from the Present Moment.
False Hopes can be thought of as Wishful Thinking on a bigger scale. While Wishful Thinking applies to something that is unlikely, a False Hope applies to something bigger and even less likely. Hoping to win millions through gambling is a False Hope, as the odds of doing so are incredibly low. Hoping to become a famous actress without ever having acted before and no plan to begin is a False Hope. Hoping the woman of your dreams will pursue you out of the blue is a False Hope. It is a wish that’s likelihood of coming true is close to nil. False Hopes also do not involve personal responsibility. For Hope to be wise and offer its benefits to us, it must be grounded in reality. The danger in False Hopes lies not only in that they may pacify us and thus stop us from taking action toward our goals, but also with the fact that they set us up for defeat and disappointment, which can lead to Learned Helplessness and Hopelessness.
The other danger in Hope is when perspective in time is lost. While we feel Hopeful in the present, Hope is a future-oriented idea. It focuses on positive change towards a desired outcome. If we are not careful in employing this powerful tool, we can lose track of what we are experiencing right now. If you are always planning and hoping for the future without practicing Presence and Gratitude, you can become entrapped in a cycle that consistently bypasses the objectives we seek.
Let’s say Jeremy is Hoping to become an officer. He decides to pursue training to make this a reality. When he becomes an officer he realizes he has a new dream to impact the justice system and Hopes to become a lawyer. He works towards getting this education and the necessary testing. Once he becomes a lawyer he realizes he also wants to be a father, and sets about building his family. And on and on and on.
Now this story doesn’t require that Jeremy isn’t experiencing Presence or Gratitude throughout the pursuit and attainment of his dreams. However, it is easy to see how, if he isn’t careful, he could miss the joy that is possible in the process by allowing himself to be continually swept away by future goals. We talk more about the power of the journey versus the destination in our section on Bliss.
Integrating practical Hope into our lives must be balanced by an anchor in the Present Moment. If we’re constantly focused on the future instead of right now, we will miss what we’re Hoping for, because it will remain forever out of reach in time.
Understanding Hopelessness and Pessimism is essential to fully utilizing the power of practicing Hope.
- Hopelessness is a Pessimistic Explanatory Style + A lack of a belief in personal agency + A lack of pathways.
- Pessimism is associated with depression, lack of resiliency, and is self-perpetuating.
- A Pessimistic Explanatory Style explains negative events as Permanent, Pervasive, and the Fault of the person interpreting the event.
- Cultural Pessimism and the belief that humanity is doomed is popular, yet many statistics show that progress has increased exponentially over time.
- Our perception of reality is affected by cognitive biases, many of which are negative.
- Pessimism probably evolved as a survival mechanism for conserving energetic resources in risky time periods.
- Fantasizing is wishing for a positive future outcome without practical pathways and can act as a sedative that prevents us from pursuing our goals.
- It is possible to be toxically positive, which can have negative consequences on your health, emotional wellbeing, and relationships.
- Appropriate negativity is negativity that is specific and correctable.
- Hope isn’t serving to us if it isn’t grounded in realistic probability or if we do not balance it by appreciating the Present Moment.
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