Can pessimism be beneficial?

Our culture is saturated with upbeat messages, encouraging us to think positively. All the while, pessimism is typically regarded as a flaw or a hindrance — but could it actually bring its own benefits?

Pessimism is often defined as the expectation of negative outcomes, especially in the collective consciousness. People who tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full are therefore perceived as messengers of doom and gloom.

More importantly, pessimism is sometimes tied to health risks. One study reported by Medical News Today last year, for example, concluded that pessimists were at a heightened risk of death from heart disease.

This might make sense to us given that pessimists are, by nature, worriers who expect the worst possible outcome in all uncertain situations. But could we be wrong in dismissing pessimism? Do we miss a trick when we insist on thinking positively?

Defensive pessimism

Julie Norem — a researcher in psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts — argues that a certain degree of pessimism has its benefits.

In a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, which has gained considerable attention in the media, Norem draws on previous research to argue that in many cases, pessimism is a helpful coping and strategizing tool. She calls this "defensive pessimism."

Coping mechanism and planning strategy

In an interview, Norem characterized "defensive pessimism" as an effective "strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn't negatively influence performance."

"If you feel anxious," she added, "you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way."

Defensive pessimism allows people to come up with viable problem-solving strategies and be better prepared to face negative outcomes.

The key aspect of defensive pessimism, according to Norem, is imagining possible negative outcomes to develop strategies for action, should they be needed.

"When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations," she says, "but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong."

This allows defensive pessimists to plan ahead and feel better prepared for whatever obstacles they may have to face in the future.

"What we've seen in the research is if they do this [imagining negative scenarios] in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn't use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity."

Julie Norem

Imagine the worst, but make it specific

That being said, she acknowledges that there are also some potential drawbacks to defensive pessimism. One downside, Norem says, may lie in how others perceive you — especially if you voice your negative scenarios out loud.

Other people may misunderstand this self-preparation tactic and take it as a sign that you're not ready for the job ahead, for instance.

Another potential problem might arise from visualizing unspecific catastrophic scenarios. "The more internal drawbacks are if instead of thinking of negative possibilities in very specific terms, you start spiraling out of control," as Norem puts it.

"That's what clinicians consider catastrophizing to be," she explains. "Instead of thinking of specific things that can go wrong that you can prevent, you say, 'This talk is going to be a disaster. My whole life is a mess.'"

"The specificity is key to having positive effects as opposed to negative effects," Norem adds.

You can take her online quiz to see whether or not you qualify as a defensive pessimist here.

Positive thinking's side effects

Optimism may sometimes hold you back from achieving the best results, both in your personal life and at work. Having high hopes for the future could also lead to poor decision-making.

People who enjoy indulging in positive fantasies about the future may be less likely to actively pursue their dreams.

One study shows that tornado survivors tend to become unhealthily optimistic, thinking that when a tornado hits next, it's unlikely that they'll be affected.

This is because they believe that if bad luck misses you once, it's unlikely to strike again in the future.

Yet this type of thinking ignores the fact that this is not necessarily a realistic outlook, and it keeps people from preparing for negative events.

Optimism affects performance and achievement

People who tend to imagine a bright future for themselves are less likely to actively pursue that scenario in real life, research suggests.

A series of studies conducted on young people in the United States found that, when the participants indulged in positive fantasies about the future, the act of imagining the successful achievement of their goals actually drained them of the energy they needed to pursue those aims for real.

"Although it is tempting to believe that simple positive visions can engender actual success, this belief is not always justified," the study authors conclude, adding that:

"Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like."

Some types of optimism also seem to damage newlywed couples' ability to solve any problems that they are faced with in their relationship, potentially leading to a deterioration of their bond.

One study found that, in early marriage, spouses who displayed dispositional optimism — or a habit of thinking that things would turn out all right, no matter what — correlated with better problem-solving within the relationship.

Spouses who displayed relationship-specific optimism, however — that is, those who were overly optimistic in their expectations about their partner — did not have a constructive problem-solving approach and were not as efficient in dealing with difficulties.

Optimism, pessimism, and health

Despite some studies positing that pessimism can pose a risk to health — especially in connection with heart disease — there is also research that highlights the protective effect of expecting negative outcomes.

Mental health

Optimism was previously identified as a risk factor for depression among mature people; although the study indicated some correlations between pessimistic thinking styles and mood disorders later in life, it was optimists who were at the highest risk of depression in the aftermath of a distressing event.

The study authors explain that this may have to do with the age group, rather than any other considerations. They say:

"Pessimism [...] may be unrealistic and inaccurate in the lives of young people and therefore becomes a risk factor for depression, but the reality of life events may change with age such that extreme optimism becomes less realistic, and itself emerges as a risk factor for depression."

Seniors who project less positivity may be less likely to develop depression or live with disability.

However, a more recent analysis of four different studies focusing on the relationship between optimism, pessimism, and depression suggests that indulging in positive fantasies can be a risk factor across the board.

This analysis indicated that, in the short-term, imagining bright scenarios about the future has a positive effect on mood, but that in the long run, this habit is a predictor of depression and other mood disorders.

Lead study author Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, from New York University in New York City, declared in an interview that "[o]f all the positive emotions, optimism about the future may have the most ironic effects. Like happiness, positive fantasies about the future can be profoundly de-motivating."

She continued, "People say 'dream it and you will get it' — but that's problematic. Optimistic thoughts may also put the obese off losing weight and make smokers less likely to plan to quit."

Pessimism leads to 'taking improved precautions'

A healthy dose of pessimism may, in fact, have a protective role against disability and mortality, as research from the Institute of Psychogerontology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany suggests.

The study shows that older adults who predict lower life satisfaction as the years go on are at a lower risk of death and of living with disability, compared with peers who project higher life satisfaction.

"Perceiving a dark future may foster positive evaluations of the actual self," the authors explain, "and may contribute to taking improved precautions."

So, the next time that you're bothered by the fact that your glass always seems half empty, rest assured that you're probably on the right track. This might give you the extra push to fill it to the brim.