Don’t Look on the Bright Side?
Sure, a good attitude is never a bad thing, but a bad attitude isn’t always a bad thing, either
Always looking on the bright side can be blinding.
In general, optimism is good for our emotional and physical wellbeing. Studies show that optimists tend to have better relationships, stronger immune systems and fewer illnesses, whereas pessimistic attitudes have been linked to depression, sickness, career setbacks and relationship woes.
However, research also shows that “not all pessimism is created equal, and that a certain kind of pessimism is actually good for you,” says psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, director of life management, Canyon Ranch resort spa, Lenox, Mass.
Not all optimism is created equal, either. “In American culture, we think optimism is good without qualifiers or asterisks,” says Julie Norem, author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak” (Basic Books, 2002).
However, optimism that gives rise to overconfidence can make people blind to risks, resulting in physical, financial or emotional injury, she adds.
Unrealistic optimists believe they will succeed easily and effortlessly. “This kind of optimism turns out to be a recipe for failure because it leaves you totally unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead,” says social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of “Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence” (Plume, 2014).
Just as there are “good” dietary fats and bad ones, there is a kind of pessimism associated with failure and an altogether different kind that can help bring about positive outcomes for certain types of people. Indeed, there’s a kind of pessimism that functions quite a bit like realistic optimism.
Good, or “defensive,” pessimism is protective and leads to constructive action. People who engage in defensive pessimism look critically at situations and adjust their behavior in response to perceived risks or threats. In other words, they prepare.
“Realistic optimism is similar to defensive pessimism in that it involves thinking about the obstacles that stand in your way,” Halvorson says. “When we are realistically optimistic, we believe we will succeed, but we embrace the fact that it will involve hard work and persistence.
“Defensive pessimism and realistic optimism are both effective ways to keep yourself motivated, depending on the kind of person you are. Some of us are more energized by thinking about how everything could go wrong – and trying to keep that from happening – while others are more energized by imagining how great it will feel to succeed.”
Defensive pessimism is a strategy applied to specific situations. Dispositional pessimism, on the other hand, is a state of mind that is pervasive and persistent. As an unconscious mental process or a deliberate exercise, defensive pessimism – perhaps better thought of as adaptive or strategic pessimism – takes an anxiety-inducing event or task and imagines all the ways it could go awry. Then, it devises ways to avoid or work around each potential pitfall.
“Defensive pessimism might look a little crazy and obsessive from the outside,” acknowledges Norem, an associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “You think of all the things that can go wrong in great detail.”
For example, before a public speech, a person might anticipate tripping over the microphone cord, spilling the pitcher of water on the lectern, scattering his or her note cards on the floor and facing a hostile audience.
Having imagined all this, the person would then take measures to avert those catastrophes by role playing in advance and showing up early to tape down the cord and place the water pitcher out of reach.
For some people, defensive pessimism could backfire by becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But for anxious people, research shows that this exercise provides for a greater sense of control and improved prospects. “It doesn’t make the anxiety go away,” Norem says, “but the person usually performs better.”
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