The Upside of Being Down

Everyone has a friend that’s an optimist, while another is a self-proclaimed realist. I’ve always acted as the former, and called the latter a pessimist in disguise. The truth is, there are shades of gray.

Research shows that ‘power of positive thinking’ is likely the product of marketing; causal relationships between optimism and positive outcomes are elusive. Optimism does correlate with health and long-life – this is especially important later in life – but the connections are difficult to interpret.

Even worse: optimism can blind people to the dangers inherent in their decisions. Being overly optimistic and confident about a test can lead to under-preparation and potential failure. Having a ‘good feeling’ about a bet, business deal, or upcoming presentation can overshadow the risks and potential negative outcomes.

Pessimists, on the other hand, overestimate their chance of failure. Assuming they do not fall whim to the futility of it all, this level of self-doubt can result in the substantial preparation that they feel is required to succeed. Furthermore, pessimists have braced themselves for unpleasant occurrences, and have a tendency to suffer less than the eternal optimists when struck by misfortune – either on something you can prepare for, such as a test, or the unavoidable, like the death of a friend.

Research also shows that forcing people to use other coping mechanisms may damage their performance. As an optimist, there have been many occasions when I ‘knew’ my friend wouldn’t fail their exam, and I pressured them to think positively. Not only was it a futile effort, but for all I know it backfired entirely!

Even still, short-term stress and worry – a trait innate for perpetual pessimists – can result in mental fatigue that drains self-control (essential for continued focus on work, or on maintaining your diet plan). In the long term, adverse effects are more prominent and problematic.

In the end, the realist is an elusive, best-case scenario. We can all seek to achieve a combination of measured levels of optimism with a practical pessimistic consideration, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ model.

By Chris Iversen