I hate to ruin an impressive run of uplifting and moving “This I Believe” essays, but I actually don’t believe in such things as “community” and “a positive outlook on life.” Quite the contrary. I have a confession to make: I happen to deeply believe in one thing that does not make for a very good Hallmark card: I believe in — and depend on — pessimism.
I’m 29 years old with a life — like most of yours I’m sure — that has so far been a mix of fortune and failure, distinction and dysfunction. And the principle I’ve clung to most is pessimism.
Before you call me Oscar the Grouch, allow me to make the positive case for what might seem like a staunchly negative value.
First, let’s be honest: Human history messes up just as often as it succeeds and so banking one’s cheerful disposition on the hope that the better angels of our nature will prevail is a risky game of emotional roulette at best.
In fact, intrinsic in the notion of hope is the acknowledgement that hopes sink just as often as they succeed. And, for me, I’d definitely want better odds than that.
Enter pessimism: Although it may seem counterintuitive, pessimists actually set themselves up for greater happiness by keeping expectations low. If you expect less of others, you’ll a.) be disappointed less and b.) crack smiles more frequently when, doggonit, things turned out better than you had ever imagined. After all, just because we pessimists expect the worst, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the best.
Take baseball, for instance: If you hope that your team will win, you’ve got a 3% chance of being right. If you assume that your team won’t go all the way, you’re 97% on the way there. That’s almost a sure thing. Rest assured that a healthy dose of pessimism saved 86 years of Red Sox fans from mass depression. Until they won the World Series in 2004, what saved the general sanity of Red Sox fans everywhere was that sneaking feeling in the back of their head that, however tragic, the boys would probably screw things up again. And so it softened the blow.
In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that these optimists aren’t getting a full appreciation of life’s good moments, because after all, don’t optimists think that all that goodness is, well, expected? What fun is that?
Now, being optimistic will win you more accolades: People will call you “cheerful,” “full of life” and “sunny.”
Pessimists? We’re perfectly content walking around life with that look on our face that makes you think that we’ve got a better sense of what’s around that next corner than you do. After all, we invented the smirk: Half of our mouths go up while the other sinks downward. We just do it to cover all our bases, which, as anyone will tell you, is always a good policy.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.