THE DETAILS: In the past 20 years, there has been an avalanche of research confirming the emotional and medical benefits of optimism. Optimistic people tend to have better relationships, stronger immune systems, and fewer illnesses, and when they do get sick, they recover faster. And as optimism has become prized as an attitudinal wonder drug, pessimism has been relegated to the status of toxic waste. Pessimistic attitudes have been found to contribute to depression, illness, career failure, and relationship troubles. Clearly, it's important and healthy to be optimistic.
And yet, the line between optimism and pessimism isn't always as clear as you might expect. Most people don’t realize that all pessimism is not created equal—and that a certain kind of pessimism is actually good for you.
Think of it as like good fats (for example, olive oil) and bad fats (trans fats). You don't avoid all fats—in fact, this would be very bad for your health. Rather, you want to recognize the difference between the two types, and consciously choose the kind that’s healthy for you. The same applies to pessimism.
OK, what’s the difference? In a nutshell, being globally pessimistic about yourself, called dispositional pessimism, is very bad for you. On the other hand, being specifically pessimistic about a situation, called defensive pessimism, is in fact very likely to pay off for you.
Here’s how dispositional pessimism works. People with this type of pessimism tend to believe that when bad things happen, it was their fault, it will lead to other bad things happening to them, and bad things will keep happening to them forever. In other words, they believe that bad outcomes are personal, pervasive, and permanent. So, for example, say that a project you’re working on with a team of people goes badly. As a dispositional pessimist, you would conclude it was all your fault, that you will fail at everything you do, and that you’ll never again be successful at anything you do in life. Not surprisingly, chronic dispositional pessimism has been found to lead to hopelessness, helplessness, withdrawal, and depression.
Here’s how "good" pessimism, defensive pessimism, works. People who engage in this type of pessimism look critically at a situation, and adjust their behavior in response to a perceived threat or risk. Even if the situation could turn out positively, they prepare themselves for a potential problem, or avoid the situation entirely. So, defensive pessimists don’t buy volatile stocks or place risky bets. They drive defensively. They are good air-traffic controllers, health inspectors, and surgeons. They follow the old adage of "hope for the best, prepare for the worst."
Defensive pessimism leads to constructive action and has protective value. Defensive pessimism is actually optimistic, because it involves the belief that you can and will take constructive action to protect yourself. As one of my clients told me, “I’m a lawyer. I always expect the worst, and that’s why I’m successful. My clients pay me to be pessimistic, anticipate what could go wrong, and protect them from it.”
Here are some other attitudes expressed by defensive pessimists:
"I like to keep my expectations low, so I won’t be disappointed and I might even be pleasantly surprised."
"I think of worst-case scenarios so I can be prepared for anything."
"I tend to be pessimistic, but I also tend to be more accurate in my assessments than my more optimistic counterparts."
"I tend to be obsessive, and I sometimes worry unnecessarily, but I do tend to catch small problems before they become big ones."
WHAT IT MEANS: Sometimes people are called pessimists for pointing out what may go wrong. But far from being an unhealthy attitude, defensive pessimism is called for in many situations. The economic meltdown of 2008 might have been averted if more of the top executives at large financial institutions had practiced defensive pessimism. The BP oil spill this summer might also have been avoided if key decision makers had exercised more defensive pessimism. And if you can learn the art of defensive pessimism, you may avoid all sorts of large and small troubles in your own life.
Here are some ways to make defensive pessimism work for you:
• Observe your thinking and learn to discriminate between dispositional and defensive pessimism in yourself.
• Make one list containing your thoughts that reflect dispositional pessimism. Next to that list, how each thought affected you ("made me feel discouraged," "I avoided trying to take on another project").
• Make another list of thoughts you have had that reflect defensive pessimism. Next to that list write down any results that came from each thought ("I worried about an expensive potential repair, and decided to buy the extended warranty." "I noticed a lump and decided to set up an appointment with my doctor.")
• If you tend toward dispositional pessimism and it is bringing you negative consequences, put some energy into learning to be more optimistic. Read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. If you are experiencing serious emotional difficulty related to pessimistic thinking of the dispositional type, consider engaging in cognitive-behavioral therapy, the kind that helps you change your thinking to improve your mood and outlook.
• Make a point of using defensive pessimism in situations that call for it. For instance, if you are starting a new health habit, such as a healthy eating plan, identify potential obstacles that might get in your way and come up with a plan to overcome them.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears weekly on Rodale.com.