It had to happen (at least that’s what a pessimist might say): Just when it seemed that the positive thinking crowd had us all convinced that optimism was the recipe for successful living, along comes a slew of new books extolling the virtues of pessimism. From The Power of Negative Thinking to Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, pessimism is the new black in the self-help publishing industry .
Is optimism passé? Is negative thinking beneficial? The answers are no and yes.
We can all probably recall times when anticipation of – or possible escape from! – a negative experience jolted us into action. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for us to look at situations through rose-coloured glasses (in fact, an article in The Globe and Mail suggests being positive is our most common default position). So despite what this week’s best seller tells us is the right disposition for us to develop, it’s not an either/or proposition: pessimism AND optimism have their place.
This back and forth between attitudes indirectly reflects the first principle of Balanced Leadership, that is, as humans we are driven by both love and fear. We pull in more of what we want (love) and push away or against what we need to avoid (fear working for us).
Possibly the reason we keep switching from pro-optimism to pro-pessimism is because both fear and love have a dark, shadow side that can work against us. Every time we come up against it we swing the pendulum the other way. Pessimism is not always bad, it just needs to be applied properly. Same for optimism.
Fear is a powerful emotion we can harness to our advantage. Fear or pessimism about the future can lead people to do all they can to prepare for or anticipate an uncertain future. Fear of failure or loss can be a powerful motivator to act in your best interests and work hard. Similarly, unwarranted optimism about situations (e.g., we’ll never have an earthquake here) can lead to being blind-sided in an emergency.
The shadow side of fear can lead to excessive actions or total paralysis, from hoarding everything for fear of running out of anything, to the survivalist movement whose fear about government intrusion in their lives can lead to restricted, fear-driven isolation waiting for disaster to strike. Compare this with healthy skepticism that can help you prepare for the worst while still hoping for the best.
Unwarranted optimism – the shadow side of the love-based world – can lead to denial or lack of awareness about what is really going on (wishing illness away when a doctor’s attention might be the better route, or avoiding conflict that deserves attention). Again, addressing what needs to be dealt with but remaining optimistic and hopeful is likely to yield better results.
Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst balances the optimism/pessimism scale. We need the right amounts of both love and fear in our lives to live fully without being constrained by anxiety or deluded by wishful thinking.
Cup half empty or half both? Both!