Should (All) Pessimists Try to Become Optimists?

Many of us have a tendency to cast optimism in an overly rosy light. We see optimism as the “bright side” or the “sunny side of the street,” we like being around optimists, and a vanguard of “positive thinking” gurus encourage us to see even the darkest moments in positive terms. Got cancer? It will help you grow as a person we are told. In contrast, pessimists are often shunned in our society, told to “cheer up” and encouraged to move out of the “dark side of the street.” There are many good reasons for this. Optimism is an essential part of our makeup—without it, we would find it difficult to do anything. Many psychologists even assume that our ancient ancestors would not have walked out of Africa had we not had the in-built curiosity and enthusiasm that goes with an optimistic take on life. Good scientific evidence supports this view: Optimism has been associated with better health, success in business, a larger and more supportive network of friends, and an increased lifespan. All of this is true, and suggests that optimism is an important, indeed essential, mindset that has benefits for many aspects of our lives.

With all this focus on optimism, however, it’s easy to forget where pessimism comes from and what it is for. As a cognitive psychologist, my assumption is that our emotions have evolved for a purpose and that primary emotions—such as fear—are there for a reason. Indeed, fear is the most studied emotion in neuroscience and psychology, with good reason. If we think about it, from a biological point of view, the number one priority in life is to stay alive. Detecting danger and threat is therefore essential. It’s no surprise, then, that our brain has an in-built and powerful fear system that can stop all other brain processes in their tracks when a threat is detected. It is this ancient fear system that, I argue, is at the root of pessimism. A pessimistic way of thinking has many benefits, forcing us to consider what might go wrong—and what we can do about it—as well as what may go right. Think of a mother watching her toddler stumbling toward a busy road. Would an optimistic mindset be of value here? Obviously not. The pessimistic take—she will be hit by a car—is obviously the best solution in this situation.

As I was writing Rainy Brain Sunny Brain, I became more and more aware of how important both ways of thinking are to our survival and to our well-being. I argue that the deep roots of both ways of thinking are embedded in ancient brain systems that determine how we respond to fear on the one hand and pleasure on the other. These are the two great biological motivators that draw us toward the things that are good for us—food, warmth, the company of others—and pull us away from the things that endanger us. Both are essential, and in the book, I look at how these ancient brain systems link up with much more recent (in evolutionary terms) brain systems to form circuits that underpin optimism (the “sunny” brain) and pessimism (the “rainy” brain). Many scientific studies show that people vary along a spectrum of optimism as well along a spectrum of pessimism. The key to a successful life is to keep these two systems in balance.

We need our rainy brain as much as our sunny brain. But we should remember that the fear system—and it’s associated rainy brain—will always trump the sunny brain. It’s more important to avoid being lunch than to have lunch! This is why the fear system can all too easily spiral out of control and can even tip into depression and anxiety disorders. A pervasive pessimism that can be a precursor to such serious problems casts a dark shadow over our lives.

So, to answer the question, should (all) pessimists try to become optimists? My answer would be no, not all. It depends where we are along the spectrum. That said, there is no doubt that optimism—when linked to realism—is good for us. In other words, a generally optimistic take on life, with a healthy dose of pessimism thrown in, is likely to bring us greater success. Finding the balance is the key.

Elaine Fox is a visiting research professor in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Essex, and the author of the new book Rainy Brain Sunny Brain.

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