The Pessimistic Mindset
Christopher Bergland :
A few days ago, someone posted a gut-wrenching comment in response to a blog post I'd written, "Pessimism May Lower Your Odds of Living a Long, Healthy Life," that sent shock waves through my nervous system and reminded me of something I would have said as a 16-year-old.
Anonymous wrote: "I am a pessimist. I don't want to live long. There is no point and it all is going to hell in a handbasket. Living longer is not my goal."
I didn't want to respond directly to Anonymous in the comment box with a cheerleader-sounding pep talk or with a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline without any context. So, I decided to compose a two-part series that shares autobiographical examples of how, over the years, I've tried to master the high-wire act of being less of a pessimist without becoming a phony, fairy-tale-seeking Pollyanna.
In this post, I'm going to explore how a poem by Alice Walker, "Expect Nothing," opened my eyes to a no-nonsense explanatory style that taught me to "live frugally on surprise," "wish for nothing larger than your own small heart," and "tame wild disappointment."
Along this line, yesterday, a study about relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA) was featured in a news release from Penn State. This study offers some fresh clues about why I never allow myself to be too optimistic and prefer to "expect nothing."
Although I tend to be optimistic, I definitely do not view the world as some kind of picture-perfect la-la-land. Taming the "wild disappointment" of realizing that the world is not utopian (as some die-hard optimists might proclaim) every time I read the newspaper or turned on cable TV, would be too much bad news to bounce back from on a continuous basis. Therefore, I consider myself a "realistic optimist," who purposely sprinkles slivers of sarcasm and hard-cold reality into my rose-tinted view of the world.
What is RIA? The new study (Kim & Newman, 2019) on relaxation-induced anxiety investigates the phenomenon of why some people get really stressed out when they do mind-body exercises (e.g., mindfulness or meditation) that are supposed to trigger a relaxation response. Interestingly, the researchers posit that people who are prone to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) may actively resist relaxation training because they'd rather continue worrying than experience a shock to their system if something bad did happen.
"People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it's actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts," co-author Michelle Newman, who is a Professor of Psychology at Penn State said in a recent news release.
"The [Contrast Avoidance Model] theory revolves around the idea that people may make themselves anxious intentionally as a way to avoid the letdown they might get if something bad were to happen," Newman added. "This isn't actually helpful and just makes you more miserable. But, because most of the things we worry about don't end up happening, what's reinforced in the brain is, 'I worried and it didn't happen; so I should continue worrying.'"
When all you see is darkness and hopelessness, remember: "There will be sunbeams in your soul again."
As a teenager, I suffered from crippling anxiety. In the winter of 1982, when I was sixteen, I also experienced a major depressive episode (MDE) marked by complete hopelessness and suicidal ideation.
At the time, my mom tried to cheer me up by saying, "Don't give up. Everything's going to be OK in the long run. There will be sunbeams in your soul again." Luckily, Mom didn't just regurgitate potentially cheesy refrigerator-magnet "inspirational quotes." She also scheduled appointments with a mental health professional; this therapist was a lifesaver.
That said, in my lifelong battle to keep a hardwired predisposition for clinical depression at bay, reciting the words, "There will be sunbeams in your soul again," never fails to buoy my spirits. This mantra also helps me cultivate some optimism and a sunnier outlook (if only for a millisecond) when I feel negativity and pessimism creeping in, which happens from time to time.
The topical reason I'm sharing these personal examples of how I've learned to reframe my pessimistic mindset here, today, is in response to a growing body of evidence (Rozanksi et al., 2019) suggesting that optimism is strongly associated with longevity. Conversely, a recent meta-analysis found that extremely pessimistic people are statistically more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and die at a younger age. (See Optimism Study Gives Optimists More Reason to Be Optimistic)
There is a caveat to all this talk about the benefits of optimism: I'm well aware that some readers-like the anonymous commenter quoted in the second paragraph, who feels hopeless and pessimistic-might say, "I don't want to live long. Living longer is not my goal." Nevertheless, my goal here is to encourage anyone reading this who self identifies as a "pessimist" to seek out a paradoxical middle ground between pessimism and optimism that allows you to acknowledge that "life sucks" as you simultaneously navigate different explanatory styles that nourish your motivation to find some life-affirming silver linings.
Note: I'm also encouraging anyone who is feeling hopeless or desperate to reach out and ask for help by letting someone know that your will to live is on shaky ground. Anyone in the U.S. can speak to a counselor right now, at the toll-free Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or by using text-based Lifeline Chat. Both counseling services are available, free of charge, 24/7 in the United States.
As mentioned, reading or reciting certain poems helps boost my pragmatic optimism, too. Even though I'm not much of an academic or literary person, when I was in the 8th grade, I memorized two poems that have stayed etched in my memory banks for decades. Are there any poems relating to pessimism vs. optimism that resonate with you? (If so, please share in the comments.)
In my mind, poetry can offer valuable insights into navigating the thin line between unrealistically "sunny" optimism and hopelessly "dark" pessimism. My first poetry example or Exhibit A is "The Knowledge of Light" by Henry Rago; the second is a poem (discussed earlier) that inspired the title of this post by Alice Walker, "Expect Nothing. Live Frugally on Surprise."
Clearly, there are no easy answers for motivating or teaching oneself to be more optimistic and less pessimistic. In a follow-up post, "Some Road-Tested Ways to Kick the Pessimistic Mindset Habit," I'll share specific examples of how creating personalized playlists of motivational music that inspires me-and blasting these songs at top volume during vigorous workouts-helps me look on the bright side and view everything with more optimism on a daily basis.
(Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist).