The power of pessimism: We're told to 'think positive' yet a new book argues we'd be far happier if we embraced negativity

I broadly agree with this. High self-esteem is toxic. Christian humility works a lot better. I have had a very easy life because of my pessimism. I pessimistically foresee bad things that might happen to me and so avoid them. People tell me I am lucky but it is my pessimism that makes my luck -- JR.

Uplifting self-help books, looking on the bright side and repeating positive affirmations to ourselves - a day never seems to pass when we’re not told to be as upbeat as possible. So why, then, do most people in modern Britain seem to be more stressed, miserable and confused than ever?

One expert claims to have found the answer. In a fascinating new book, Oliver Burkeman, an author who specialises in writing about psychology, claims we’d have a much better time if we actually took a more negative view of life.

It’s time to embrace failure, insecurity and pessimism instead of trying to run away from it, Burkeman says, and simply stop trying so hard to be happy if we want to feel more positive about life.

‘For a society so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task,’ Burkeman says. ‘One of the best-known general findings of the “science of happiness” has been the discovery that the countless advantages of modern life have done little to lift our collective mood.'

Romance, family life and work often bring as much stress as joy. Economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income doesn’t make for happier people.

The huge number of self-help books available to us these days also fail to make us happy. This is why publishers refer to the ‘18-month rule’, which states that the person most likely to purchase a self-help book is someone who, in the previous 18 months, purchased a different self-help book — one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems.

The existence of a thriving ‘happiness industry’ clearly isn’t sufficient to engender happiness, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse. So what does help?

After years spent consulting specialists — from psychologists to philosophers and even Buddhists — Burkeman realised they all agreed on one thing: the effort to feel happy is precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And it is our constant struggle to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy.

Instead, they argued for an alternative — a ‘negative path’ to happiness. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, and becoming familiar with failure. In short, in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at least, to learn to stop running so hard from them. So how can pessimism really be as healthy and productive as optimism? Burkeman explains:


Behind many of today’s most popular approaches to happiness lies one simple philosophy — positive visualisation. If you picture things turning out well, the theory goes, they’re far more likely to do so. And, yes, focusing on a positive outcome, rather than a negative one, seems like a sensible way of maximising your chances of success.

But according to the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them. For example, in one experiment, subjects who were encouraged to visualise having a particularly high-achieving week at work were shown to achieve significantly less than those who were invited to think about the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so.


In experiment after experiment, Oettingen and her team found that people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing and doing less. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused visualising success with having already achieved it. By choosing to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared when things eventually happen that she can’t persuade herself to believe are good.

This is a problem underlying all approaches to happiness that set too great a store by optimism. It’s important to keep a realistic view of what lies ahead if you want to feel truly happy.


Do you lie awake at night, worrying that you’ll lose your job? Do you fret that your partner might leave you and that you’ll be left all on your own? We normally try to assuage our worries about the future by seeking reassurance — by trying to persuade ourselves that everything will be all right. But positive reassurance is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it can be wonderful, smoothing away worries. But in the long term, it requires constant maintenance.

If you offer reassurance to a friend who is in the grip of anxiety, for instance, you’ll often find that a few days later she’ll be back for more.

Worse, reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety. When you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario she fears probably won’t occur, you are inadvertently reinforcing her belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. But it is also true that when things do go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing.

Those fears are based on irrational judgments about the future, usually because you haven’t thought the matter through in sufficient detail. Thinking about, rather than trying to ignore, the worst-case scenario is the way to replace these irrational notions with more rational judgments. Imagine how wrong things could go for you in reality, and you will usually find that your fears were exaggerated.

If you lost your job, there are steps you could take to find a new one; if you lost your relationship, you would probably manage to find some happiness in life. Looking on the downside and actually confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power.


If we’re going to be positive about life, we need to have some goals to aim for, don’t we? Or do we? According to many self-help scientists, setting ‘positive’ goals for yourself can often mean setting yourself up for failure — even disaster — rather than the success you might imagine. What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, they suggest, is rarely any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s how deeply uncomfortable we feel when life is uncertain. We hate not knowing what is around the corner, so we set goals to try to bring some certainty into our lives.

It is alarming to consider how many major life decisions we take primarily to minimise present-moment emotional discomfort. To understand what this means, try the following exercise. Consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: perhaps a job you accepted even though, looking back, it’s clear that it was mismatched to your interests or abilities. If it felt like a difficult decision at the time, then it’s likely that you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty; afterwards, having made a decision, did those feelings subside?

If so, this points to the possibility that your motivation in taking the decision was simply the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of uncertainty.

Taking a more relaxed approach to your future, working with what you have now and moving forward in small steps, rather than setting up one big, inflexible goal, is a far less pressurised way to live. It’s an attitude that made a chemist realise the insufficiently sticky glue he’d developed could be used for Post-it Notes. Trust the uncertain things beyond your control and go with the flow.


We tend to assume that having high self-esteem is a good thing, but some psychologists have long suspected that there might be something wrong with the whole notion — because it rests on the assumption that your personality can be given a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rating. When you rate your ‘self’ highly, you actually create the possibility of rating your ‘self’ poorly. It’s a preposterous over-generalisation. We all behave in good ways and bad ways. Smothering all these nuances with a blanket notion of self-esteem may prove a recipe for misery.

It’s better to rate each act as good or bad. Seek to perform as many good ones — and as few bad ones — as possible. But leave your ‘self’ out of it.



  1. I was going to comment "It's a nice surprise to learn there are sensible psychologists after all (apart from this blog's author)". Then I see that the source of these quotes is a journalist.

    The other canard is the "search for happiness" - leading to, perhaps, the drug culture. But happiness is a by-product of achievement: chasing happiness in isolation is chasing a mirage, and is about as satisfying.

  2. Another useful thing to remember:

    "Murphy was an optimist".


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