This’ll Help Things Turn Out for the
“Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble, give a whistle!
And this’ll help things turn out for the… best.”
These are lyrics from “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life,” a musical number that ends the Monty Python film Life of Brian.
I always laugh when Eric Idle sings “best.” It’s so damn awkward. Because the expected rhyme with “curse” is of course not “best” but “worst.”
This forced rhyme is in step with the forced optimism that’s the whole point of the song. After all, this upbeat number is sung by folks who are hanging from crucifixes.
It’s an intentionally absurd example but one that certainly gets at a deeper truth.
Much has been made of the power of positive thinking. But is “looking on the bright side” always the best strategy?
Could there even be a productive role for pessimism?
One research team certainly thought so. Psychologists Nancy Cantor and Julie Norem set out to study and define a cognitive strategy that they deemed “defensive pessimism.”
When a person uses defensive pessimism, they set low expectations for their future performance, independently of how well they’ve performed in the past. Defensive pessimists focus on possible negative occurrences and setbacks and then — and this is important — they prepare for them.
Rather than convincing themselves things will be okay, defensive pessimists instead prepare and plan for how they’ll deal with things going wrong. And by doing so, they can often channel their baseline anxiety into a more productive, rather than paralytic, purpose.
That’s really the key difference between your garden variety pessimism and defensive pessimism: Pessimists tends to ruminate and become paralyzed by the negativity and hopelessness of a given situation. Defensive pessimists take their negative outlook and proactively guard against the outcomes they wish to avoid.
Can You Be an Optimist Who Is Defensively Pessimistic?
It’s an interesting concept to me personally — as overall, I strive to be a fairly positive person. A lot of my friends consider me optimistic. But I’ve also been known to plan extensively regarding contingencies. I always have Plans B through Z, in case things go wrong. Typically complex social situations — my romantic relationships, as a host of parties, etc.
I’ve also noted that defensive pessimism has arguably been involved in my writing process over the past few years, as I’ve successfully made the transition from being someone who writes well but infrequently to being a working writer whose output is very consistent.
Because the biggest mental trick that helped me form that habit was counterintuitive: It all started with giving myself permission to write something that was just okay.
I’ve found that the results are better — it’s funny and a bit paradoxical. You would think stressing about quality would be helpful, but I’ve found it to be the opposite. Instead, fear of failure floods in and undermines my ability to produce anything at all.
So I look at these two aspects of my life, my penchant towards contingency planning and my pessimistic acceptance of the possibility that what I write next will be terrible (and plan instead to work out any kinks during the editing process), and it looks an awful lot like context-specific defensive pessimism.
And I’m willing to bet a lot of other people also effectively use defensive pessimism from time to time as a strategy in specific contexts, even if they’re generally optimistic.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.