The Back Page: Optimistic About Pessimism

Empty glass

By Ben Herr

Speaking only for myself, but expecting others to relate, pessimists are largely a misunderstood, misrepresented group of individuals. Pessimism is viewed as a character flaw at worst, and a bad mood at best. But is it really? Should it be completely written off without often giving it a second thought? Because I believe in pessimism. I believe it is a valuable mindset to society, and has things to offer the individual.

First, the most common, and most quickly dismissed, argument in favor of pessimism: A pessimist’s approach to life is actually more optimistic than an optimist’s. You’ve almost certainly heard this explained in an overly simplistic way.

For example, an optimist and a pessimist start cleaning out the garage at 10 a.m. The optimist says, “If we work hard, we can get done by noon!” The pessimist says, “I doubt it, we will probably finish by 2.” While it may seem like the pessimist has a gloomy approach now, how about when they finish? If done by 12, the optimist’s expectations will merely have been met, while the pessimist will have been wonderfully surprised. Whereas if finished at 2, the optimist will be disappointed, but the pessimist’s expectations will merely have been met. Win-win for the pessimist.

This scenario is, on paper, in favor of the pessimist. Discuss it with a group of people, however, and it depends on the individual as to how beneficial that kind of pessimistic mindset is. Since people are wired differently, they will have different responses to the idea.

The pessimist’s perspective is more, however, than estimating cleaning time. It becomes more strongly optimistic the deeper you go. To me, pessimism is a powerful indicator of hope. Because the moment I stop being pessimistic about the world will be the moment I have given up hope in it. The moment I stop expecting poor performances is the moment I have stopped having standards that I hope to see met. The moment I stop lambasting the flaws of the governmental system is the moment I have given up hope that they might ever be corrected. The moment I stop being pessimistic is the moment I will have given up on optimism, because pessimism is really nothing more than a dirty term for how some people strive to be optimistic.

In this way, pessimism is an indicator of the desire for improvement. Take harsh movie critics. They are typically viewed by the moviegoing public as cranky, unappreciative people who simply love tearing films down. As a fairly harsh movie viewer myself, however, I can vouch that the opposite is often true. I critique because I see wasted potential, because I see ways that things could have easily been improved. Ultimately, when pessimists depict something in a negative light, it is because they want, or expect, it to be done better. Their criticism is an expression of hope that it can be done better in the future.

Finally, pessimists are more likely to give you an honest and frank opinion. They are less concerned with putting things in terms that seem appealing and optimistic, and more concerned with saying things how they see them. If I ever needed dependable input on how a system was working, I would ask a pessimist. Not only for the honesty, but if something is going wrong in a less than obvious way, it will likely be a pessimist who notices it first. That is a kind of feedback that I think is incredibly valuable.

These are just a few reasons to view pessimistic thought in a more positive light. Yet, to try to convert to pessimism if it is not how you are wired would likely be counterproductive. After all, someone could write a piece like this showing the value in optimistic thought.

What I hope to have accomplished is for the word “pessimism” to have become a little less dirty. I hope that people start recognizing the pessimist’s way as an alternative option, rather than an inferior one. I hope that more people will see pessimists as desiring, seeking, and striving for improvement. And most of all, that more people will see these as foundational things that pessimists and optimists alike will agree on.

Ben Herr lives in Lancaster, Pa., where he works as a dorm adviser for international high school students.  He writes short stories, humor, and opinion pieces about whatever current ideas and projects interest him.