March 04, 2008

The Power of Negative Thinking

[By Crabby]

When you encounter a difficult or stressful situation, and someone advises you to: "Think Positive!" or "Look on the Bright Side!" do you:

(a) Smile and say "of course!" because it wouldn't occur to you to view life any other way?

Or do you:

(b) Barely stifle the urge to bop the optimist over the head with an umbrella, which you happen to have with you because it's pretty damn cloudy and the skies could break open at any minute?

Some folks are die-hard optimists and some are resolute pessimists and most of us fall somewhere in between. Personally, I think of myself right in the middle as a "realist," but given the general tendency of American culture to favor optimism, I know I probably fall much further down on the optimism scale--say somewhere around "party pooper."

Pessimism has a bad reputation. According to various studies, which I won't cite because they're annoying, we pessimists are supposedly less happy and less fun to be around blah blah blah.

(But we're also a hell of a lot less likely to lose our shirts when we gamble).

I'm not, in my own mind, overly pessimistic. When some important life event comes up I enjoy fantasizing about best-case scenarios. But I also imagine the worst case ones and I plan for them. I'm never late to the airport or an important meeting, for example, because I find it easy to visualize the multitude of things that could go wrong and make me horrendously late. (And yes, as a result, I'm always really freakin' early for everything).

As it turns out, if you are a somewhat anxious person, there is a psychology professor at Wellesley College, Julie K. Norem, who says: screw the optimism. Optimism isn't the best strategy for everyone. Defensive Pessimism, in which you allow yourself to imagine worst case scenarios, is a perfectly good strategy too. In fact, if you try to "think positively" just because everyone around you says "Turn that frown upside down!" it can just make you more anxious. (There is even a Defensive Pessimism quiz, if you want to find out if you are one. And yeah, I am.)

However, I also think it's possible to be a Very Happy Pessimist, if you do it right. Pessimism isn't something you should have to apologize for, especially if in using it properly you find yourself every bit as happy as one of those perky optimists.

So what's the trick to embracing your negative thinking and Loving Life as a Pessimist? It's actually really easy:

Anticipate the negative, but appreciate the hell out of the positive when it happens. Bonus: the more pessimistic you are, the more often you're pleasantly surprised!

Just think of it as delayed gratification. All those optimists celebrate early, assuming everything will go right. When it doesn't, they either have to cope with disappointment or ignore reality and pretend they never had such high expectations in the first place.

Happy pessimists, however, get the disappointment part over with early. We plan in case things go wrong, so if they do, we're prepared. But here's the difference between a Happy and an Unhappy pessimist: the unhappy one doesn't stop to appreciate that the Bad Things didn't happen.

Don't skip this step, this is the fun part of pessimism. Bask in relief and gratitude that things worked out nicely!

Unhappy pessimists go right on to worrying about the next thing. This, in my opinion, is a big mistake--unless you actually enjoy worrying. Which as it happens, some people do.

Note: I haven't read Professor Norem's book yet, so I could be getting the whole concept of Defensive Pessimism horribly wrong, and have just completely embarrassed myself and driven readers away from Cranky Fitness in droves.

Oh, wait, you're still here? Hooray!

So what sort of outlook do you folks have? Optimist? Pessimist? Somewhere in between? And do you think Crabby is Crazy in thinking there's such thing as a Happy Pessimist?


  1. Hmmmn, interesting post. Thought provoking even.

    Some people believe the glass is half-full, others believe the glass is half-empty.

    Me, I've always believed the glass was twice as big as it needed to be.

    So does that make me a defensive realist? :)

  2. Merry, I'd say the "twice as big as it needs to be" is an awesome world view! Can I borrow it?

    This post was actually inspired by the fact that after worrying quite a bit about selling our California house (getting the disappointment done early) we seem to have done just fine and I am VERY HAPPY about it.

    Well, unless there's a major earthquake on the Hayward fault in the next 10 days before escrow closes.

    Oh wait, perhaps I'm not quite done worrying yet...

    (And what the heck are you doing up so early? I'm on East Coast time, I have an excuse!)

  3. Yeah, I qualified as a defensive pessimist!

    I do tend to be a planner for those worst case scenario things. twice as big as it needed to be. That's great!

  4. You too Holly?

    Even though I took the quiz with this post on my mind, I was still sort of surprised to find out I was one.

    I imagine that you, like me, are of the Happy Pessimist subtype.

  5. I got a 72 on that defensive pessimist quiz, so I guess that answers that. Nothing wrong with being prepared, though.

    Have you read much about the whole Positive Psychology trend ( This pessimism study offers an interesting balance to it, methinks.

  6. I'm a pessimist with optimistic tendencies... or is it an optimist with pessimistic tendencies?

    I often expect the worst so I can be pleasantly surprised when it doesn't happen.

    For example, right now I'm waiting for my greyhound's leg x-rays to make it to Ohio State university for a consult. She may have osteosarcoma (bone cancer). I'm bracing for the worst - I saw the lesion on her x-ray (big black spot the size of a dime) but hoping for the best.


  7. Look for good but prepare for bad.
    And may I suggest for as much as we should celebrate the good when it gets here, we ought to celebrate the bad, too, if for no other reason than we got through it.

  8. I think I'm an optimist (with the exception of a few cold wintery days) and my husband is most definitely a pessimist. It works out though - as we're always prepared for the worst, but always muddle through with a bit of a grin. We even each other out and meet somewhere int he middle.
    I used to annoy him when he'd say "sure -be a glass half full sort of person" and I'd grin and say "hey I've got my own *glass*? cool!"
    Test said I'm a pessimist tho...odd.

  9. Great post. I only discovered your blog recently, and so far I'm really enjoying catching up with what you've written.

    Just out of curiosity, anyone got good advice on how to handle working with an unhappy pessimist who always goes right to the worst-case scenario? Methods that don't involve jail time, preferably, although I'm willing to be flexible...

  10. Marijke Durning,
    I realize I'm not looking at the x-ray, but a black round area is usually some type of cyst. The sarcoma would be a large white area. I hope it turns out OK for you.
    Dr. J

  11. Hi Yorick! Welcome.

    Sounds like you've met some of my family. I can't change their view, but it took me a long time to realize that they really can't stand a positive outlook. They're happy being negative, or at least they're comfortable with it.

    I can't force them to move out of their comfort zone, so I accept them as they are. But since my more optimistic outlook is just as jarring to them as their negative outlook is to me, when together we rub each other the wrong way, which leads to shortened family visits.

    One aunt is renowned throughout the family for needed to be as negative as possible at all times. Some of my cousins have adopted an interesting strategy for dealing with her: they treat her cutting remarks as if they were meant humorously. Laughing at her remarks, not at our aunt herself, deflects the negative comments.

    It's a tricky situation to deal with in any case, especially if you can't take a break. If you collect enough positive people around you, that could offset the negative person and make it easier to be around them.

    I'm just throwing out ideas. Anyone else have any thoughts?

  12. Marijke, positive thoughts! My dog is coming back to me next week. She'd had such severe environmental allergies, I'd had to send her south for the winter. She's better now. I hope, hope, hope your dog gets better!

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  14. The Bag Lady scored 65 - a defensive pessimist! Who knew? She thinks of herself as a prepared optimist!

    Marijke - hope everything turns out alright for your dog. Listen to Dr. J!!

  15. What irks me is that there's an American mindset that equates healthy skepticism and preparation for a rainy day with a "doomer" mindset.

    A dose of caution and sense of self-preservation are what kept our ancestors alive and kept folks like me out of adjustable-rate mortgages on overpriced exurban McMansions.

  16. I think, from the description, that I'm probably a Strategic Optimist, but when I clicked on "submit" I got a small pop-up window that remained stubbornly blank, for two tries.
    I describe myself as Relentlessly Cheerful.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  17. I agree about the McMansions and adjustable-rate mortgages. That's not optimism so much as it is self-delusion. (I hope those two terms aren't synonymous.)

    What I was thinking of was watching the TV news with my family. Each negative story that comes on will be discussed with relish, really digging into the misery of the situation. But if perchance something positive is reported, there's silence. No one can dig in and extract any misery from the story, so they let it pass by and wait for the next awful situation. It's like they feed off of all the terrible things that go on in the world.

    (This is a gross overgeneralization of my family. It's only a few of them who are prone to this behavior. Somehow the negative always stands out more than the positive.)

  18. I'm an optimist, and my BF is a pure pessimist. We have very interesting exchanges due to this difference... some people might call them arguments :)

  19. I also refer to myself as a realist.

    While there are definitely benefits to focusing on the positive, I've often found that the "optimists" in my life are the onese who have their heads burried in the sand. More of a Scarlet O'Hara "I'll just think about that tomorrow" rather than really dealing and still being okay with whatever it is.

  20. Thanks for the welcome Merry. :)

    I'm definitely not someone who runs around singing "The hills are alive" or anything like that, and have my moments where my instant, knee-jerk reaction to a situation is "oh, this is gonna suck like a sucky thing that blows."

    But we're talking almost unrelenting negative energy from the moment one particular coworker arrives for the day: with her it's always about seeing the downside first, assuming the worst, and thinking "well, I just don't know how this can possibly work." And unfortunately, we work in an open office with very few coworkers—there really is no way of escaping her company for any significant amount of time and still get my job done.

    Hmmm. Maybe an attitude adjustment with a clue bat is in order? ;)

  21. I'm an annoying optimist. :D

  22. A defensive pessimist with a score of 64. I'm not at all surprised.. I KNEW it would turn out badly! ;)

  23. I always thought I was an optimist, but then I married an optimist, and have found I'm a little more pessimistic than I thought.

    And in general, when people are too perky I tend to be the party pooper in the bunch. When they're overly negative, I tend to be the big optimist.
    So maybe I'm just an antagonist.

  24. Defensive pessimist here - 67! I have given up making five year plans. Every time I have made one, something has gone horribly wrong in my life. Now, I just take it as it comes.

  25. I'm a devout believer in using negative thinking to help you instead of being trapped under its weight. If you're only positive, you're only seeing 1/2 of the picture.

  26. I'm a total idealist. Like I still think it is possible for everyone to get along and all of all that is bad to just go away. I've even had money stolen out of my wallet while on a bus (I left it on their) and am always leaving my purse everywhere b/c I just think no one will steal it!! But I blame that on my parents who never had a lock on our door!!!

    My hubby says I live in La La land. It's nice here.

  27. Crabby, as a gal who has to consider the worst-case scenario to preserve her sanity, I completely relate. I consider myself generally optimistic and happy, but I'm also a person who needs to sort through what could go wrong in a situation before I embrace it wholeheartedly.

    Fascinating stuff, as always!

  28. I got a 43, which means, "You may use both strategies or neither strategy consistently." So, I'm a non-committal pessimist. I'm neither in nor out yet I have the option to do both. I sound like one of Carrie's bad dates on Sex in the

    In my 20's, I'd say I was very much a defensive pessimist because that went along well with my Perfect Girl persona. But, into the 30's, I lessoned up on most of it because there is no point worrying about an outcome that hasn't occurred yet. Although, I do have an OCD thing with checking the stove before I leave the house for fear I leave it on and set the house on fire. This where I see the pessimism leading to anxiety. Interesting.

  29. Hooray, I'm back from the East Coast and the plane didn't crash!

    My awesome mother-in-law has made us beef stew and we are being summoned to dinner, so life definitely does not suck! Beef stew and a big salad and some chocolate cake for dessert--the perfect antidote for a yucky day spent in transit. But it does mean I need to scurry for now.

    However, I must hurry back to the computer after dinner because these comments are so interesting and amusing I have to jump in again.

    I'm intrigued I have so much company in the defensive pessimist camp, at least according to the quiz. Back later...

  30. Defensive label. Here's a quote (can't remember the attribution, sorry)

    The optimist builds airplanes, the pessimist, parachutes.

  31. That quote (posted by Anonymous) reminds me of the joke received in email years ago.. and still circulating the net...

    A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks.
    Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist.

    Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday, their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist's room, he loaded with horse manure.

    That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly.

    "Why are you crying?" the father asked.

    "Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken." answered the pessimistic twin.

    Passing the optimistic twin's room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. "What are you so happy about?" he asked.

    To which his optimistic twin replied, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

  32. Kaeti--
    I think positive psychology has a lot to offer-- lots of good common sense stuff there. (I do have some reservations about how they measure happiness, though, and sometimes it seems a bit simplistic). But if it's possible to be somewhat pessimistic and also an admirer of positive psychology, then, well, I am!

    marijke, hope the dog's x-ray turns out okay! That stuff is so scary.

    leah--you're a wiser, more mature person than I am if you can celebrate the bad, but I'm workin' on it.

    geosomin--okay now I'm really skeptical of the test if you're coming out a pessimist!

    yorick28-welcome and thanks so much for joining us! And yeah, I'm with Merry that arguing with negativity only seems to reinforce it. I think we pessimists need some acknowledgment that bad things can happen before we can move on to how to move forward to the positive. But if they want to just stay stuck in negativity, there's not much you can do to!

    Dr. J--I want you reading my x-rays if god forbid I need any! Thanks for your expertise.

    Merry, love your family management techniques!

    Bag Lady, if you're a pessimist then I'm getting REALLY skeptical.

    Bunnygirl, I'm so with you on the limitations to optimism. And then we cautious folks are often called upon to bail out those who can't see the downside to anything.

    Oh dear, so many more great comments... will try to come back soon.

  33. Mary Anne, sorry the quiz bombed, but I'm not surprised you have a cheerful bent. (And I'm still waitin' on those robots...)

    Sarah, I think optimist/pessimist combos are actually a pretty good mix. The Lobster is an optimist and we balance each other out.

    Scrumpy's Baker, I'm glad there's another realist around!

    Andrewe, good for you! (And I think most people would say pessimists are much more annoying than optimists. As long as you let us pessimists be grumpy you're not annoying at all).

    Hilary, you crack me up!

    Katieo--I'm a bit of a contrarian too. There's nothing like a true pessimist to bring out the optimist in me and vice versa.

    Reb, "take it as it comes" actually sounds like a very evolved life philosophy.

    hey Craig, thanks for stopping by! (And cool web site!)

    Sara, you La-La land residents are actually quite nice to be around, especially the ones that don't insist that we realists or pessimists have to be cheerful too. (And sorry about the wallet stuff!)

    Dara, thanks--I think we have a very similar outlook!

    Stephanie, a 43 sounds quite optimistic compared to the rest of us. And checking the stove--I can totally relate. For me its thinking I've forgotten to lock the front door. I always have--but I never remember doing it).

    Anonymous and Hilary--great examples! (And, um, when are commercial flights going to start providing parachutes?)

  34. I'd have to put myself squarely in the optimist column. On the test, I got "neither here nor there," basically. Thing is, I'm not blindly optimistic. I realize that bad things might happen, I just don't expect them to. So I do what I can to create the best outcome, preparing against the worst while expecting the best :)

    I think part of the reason I find myself so optimistic (I'm the one on my dodgeball team, when we've lost 8 in a row, who says "we've got them on the next game!" and "we played that round really well, even if we lost" and if we lose all our games (which happens often), "we can only get better from here!"), is that I grew up with a very negative mother. Her first reaction to seeing a new apartment of mine was to say "well, at least the paint isn't peeling."

    So I try not to be obnoxious about it (and I don't have my head buried in the sand, because I'm an optimistic realist), but the really negative people do irritate me sometimes. I find it hard to spend too much time around someone who's always complaining, but isn't interested in finding solutions to make their situation better. Don't get me wrong, I complain (venting is necessary sometimes), but it's to get out the frustration I feel sometimes, and I try to complain in a constructive way.

  35. I guess I'm leaning more toward the Defensive Pessimist side, but after more thinking, it really depends on. I can be very optimistic for some things (for instance, I'm not the kind of person who'll go on a 3-days trip and expect things won't be "that great"--I'll just be happy about it, thinking that no matter what, it'll be different from my daily life, so it can only be good). On the other hand, when I balance the odds and realize they are against me, I tend to prepare myself to the worst, so that I won't be totally crushed. And I'm glad I did that regarding my recent genetic test; if I had convinced myself I hadn't this defect, only to see I had it all the same, perhaps I'd have reacted badly. Right now, I'm able to react with a certain peace of mind, no desire to drown my sorrow in food, and, may I say, even a little dose of... optimism.

    So yeah... It depends?

  36. The key thing is not whether the glass is half full or half empty, but when some lumbering oaf will come along, knock it over the table to shatter on the floor.


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