The Bright Side of Pessimism


Are you a pessimist who wonders how to get rid of the negative feelings? Maybe you don’t have to or want to, according to the book I am reading. Psychologist Shawn Smith’s book The User’s Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It is quite an interesting read, particularly if you tend toward pessimism. Stephen Hayes, a professor says about the book “You would not use your dishwasher without a manual. Come on. Time to take a look.” I doubt the human mind is that similar to a dishwasher but a manual wouldn’t hurt. Some goals of the book are to “find out how your mind tries to limit your behavior and your potential, discover how pessimism functions as your mind’s error management system, learn why you shouldn’t believe everything you think and how to overrule your thoughts and feelings and take charge of your mind and life.” The book’s premise is that your mind is not built to make you happy, it’s built to help you survive and so far, it’s doing a good job since all of us reading this are alive. We may not always be happy and anxiety-free but alive is good.

The Guide teaches the reader how to live more anxiety free and with less worry but it does so in a way that embraces pessimism, and doesn’t tell the reader just to “think positively!” In a section called “It isn’t Pessimism–it’s Error Management,” Smith says that it often pays to err on the side of pessimism. For example, an aversion to strangers is a universal experience that makes sense. There is no immediate cost if you avoid the neighboring clan but if you mistakenly think they are friendly and trust-worthy, it could be fatal.

Pessimism can also help to solve problems, according to psychologist Robert Leahy. When pessimistic, we tend to slow down and have a chance to think; we have the chance to devise solutions or simply to sidestep oncoming difficulties. How do you live with a pessimistic mind? Perhaps by becoming a “defensive pessimist.” “Hosogoshi and Kodama (2009) found that defensive pessimists experience better health when they learn to accept, rather than fight, their negative thoughts. They also noticed that people who become mired in fearful, depressive thoughts perceive little control over a situation. That prevents planning and motivation.

Defensive pessimists tend to perform best when they indulge their negative thoughts before they perform. Mark Seery and his colleagues (2008) point out that those negative predictions often come bundled with unpleasant feelings, but that those negative feelings actually facilitate preparatory performance.

So instead of submitting totally to negative thoughts or fighting against them, “simply notice what the mind is doing. It is calculating probabilities and helping us make the best possible mistakes in a word where mistakes are inevitable.” Remember that the next time some Pollyanna tells you to buck up and think more positively! It may not be the best advice–for your mind.


Cross-posted at Dr. Helen.