Which is better, optimism or pessimism?
Today, most people would say optimism. I know I would. But optimism has its drawbacks. I found out the hard way. For almost three months, I ignored an increasing array of symptoms, optimistic the malaise I felt would pass. “Mind over matter,” I thought and continued on with my life.
It didn’t quite go that way. Never did I expect an urgent admittance to the hospital where medical staff transfused 2 units of blood into my veins. I had leukemia. My ever-optimistic attitude almost killed me.
When Okay Is Not Okay
How did I ignore life-threatening signs? Bias. Known as the optimism bias, this common flaw in reasoning convinces us we are less likely to experience negative events than the next person.
Studies show most people are optimistic about the future, and a surprising 80% of the population consider themselves immune to negative occurrences such as cancer or financial ruin. Yet, when questioned about the same risks for other people, their optimism waned and the probabilities increased.
Even the trendy Law of Attraction movement perpetuates this bias: only pure, positive thinking manifests the joy and abundance we seek. The optimism bias also thrives in our self-help culture. For example, the popular visualization technique forces a mindset of not just an idyllic view of the future, but one without risks.
So when things don’t go as planned, we’re thrown into a tailspin, or we deny reality and carry on, unaware that we are about to walk off a cliff.
Now, is optimism really the best choice?
Pessimism vs Optimism
While optimism and positive thinking create the foundation for a joyful life, too much optimism blinds us to potential risks and obstacles.
I failed to question these same systems in my personal life, and did not see the pitfalls or threats.
I am lucky to be here today, healthy enough to write this article. If I could do it all over again, I would seek help straight away, to possibly catch leukemia at stage I or II instead of my diagnosed stage III. Even then, it could have gone undetected.
I’ll never know. But that’s not the point. The point is – life is hard. And once we accept this, we can prepare for tough times and rise to the challenges with fortitude. (article continues after ad)
Act Like a Strategist
After everything I went through, I’m still not a pessimist. But I know a strategic dose of pessimism mixed with realism goes a long way.
Defensive pessimism is an anxiety-management tactic to prepare for the worst. These pessimists imagine terrible scenarios, then take concrete steps to avoid or manage them.
As an example, let’s take the classic fear that you might forget what to say in a public speech. A defensive pessimist finds various solutions to manage the panic; perhaps they prepare note cards, rehearse the speech 100 times or master a memorization technique.
Another approach is realistic optimism. These pragmatic optimists maintain a positive outlook, but acknowledge difficulties exist. Like defensive pessimists, they plan for negative twists, but less extensively. They are confident in their abilities and have a growth mindset. For example, they might use one notecard to remember key points, rehearse 20 times or google a few memory tricks.
One is not better than the other and neither one is fail proof. They are two different sides of the same strategic behavior. Both plant strong roots in reality.
Live Like a Realist
It’s unnecessary to identify completely with either strategy. If possible, it’s best to balance between both worlds.
When I adopted this mindset during my recovery, I experienced less anxiety and more serenity about the future. Who can say if I will relapse, or if I will lead a long, healthy life?
I’m much more wary of my health now, but this fear pushes me to listen to my physical, mental, and emotional states. And it makes me proactively reach out to medical professionals, even for simple doubts. We all need to ask ourselves hard questions from time to time. For example, some things I ask myself are:
How will my life be 10 years? Or 20, if I make it that far?
What are the worst-case scenarios for my health and economic situations?
And what steps can I take to avoid or manage them if the time comes?
I may not have everything planned to perfection, but seeing the various possibilities keeps me rooted in reality.
Also, asking tough questions forces me to accept truths that would have once terrified me. So this healthy pessimism teaches me more about my limits, capabilities, and resilience every day.
Self-help and positive-thinking techniques are still fine, as long as we remember to expect risks and monitor obstacles along the way. I strive to take nothing for granted and stay grounded in the present with an eye on the future. And I am hopeful.
For only when we prepare for hard times can we face them with efficacy, strength, and courage. One thing is certain—while optimism can make for a promising tomorrow, a healthy dose of pessimism can save a life today.
About the Author:
Michelle Grace Maiellaro
Michelle is an American expat in Italy with a versatile career history. She is a leukemia survivor who helps midlife women triumph through life crisis and change. Download her free Resilience Reading List: 10 Books That Will Inspire You To Carry On (Even In The Most Stressful Of Times) from her blog, The Resilient Woman Today.
originally published June 7, 2020