Can being pessimistic be good?
When we think of someone pessimistic it is common to come to our mind a sly person, who sees only the negative side of everything. Yes, this can be very unpleasant. But, believe me, there's something positive about thinking that things can go wrong. This prepares us for adversity and makes us face difficulties with the most open mind
To be human is to be endowed with the great gift of concern. We are probably the only creature who is anxious about the future and who regrets the past. Those "what if" thoughts and "what good would it be ..." spend a lot of energy, literally - the brain is a major consumer of nutrients and oxygen - and metaphorically. It is not surprising that many times we feel exhausted with the routine and not want to move on.
In the Western world, we tend to think that the solution to this - the way to calm, let us say - is to empty the mind. A whole industry came up offering it. Silent retreats, mindfulness applications, yoga classes with songs and bells and even easy-to-use versions of Buddhism exhibit the possibility of a quiet life.
The point is often that in spite of all this we continue to be anxious - perhaps even more so: if such retreats, classes and applications do not seem to bring peace, we run the risk of feeling guilty for not being "so good" at it. And the whole process can end up being a great frustration for those involved.
I'm not very good at practicing any of this. I find it boring to meditate. I do not connect well with the practice of mindfulness. However, not long ago, I found a kind of tranquility in a very unexpected place: pessimism. When you hear that word, you must be thinking: is not pessimism something we should banish from our way of thinking? Should not we go through life smiling, being positive and optimistic? Is not this what self-help books tell us since they were invented?
Yes and no. After the movement called Positive Thinking, which thrived in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, became known, we have this idea that smiling will make us feel better about the world. It is true that it is far better to spend the day smiling than frowning. However, it soon becomes painfully clear that sunny optimism has its limits, because when things go wrong (and even give) we are totally disappointed, like a little child whose ice cream has just fallen to the ground.
Instead, we need to change the way we look at the world. One way is to try to find answers in a group of Roman philosophers called "Stoics," especially Lucius Annaeus Seneca - or Seneca, as he is best known. He was a rich man, happy and successful, but very aware that things could go wrong at any time. In thinking that way, he did not see himself as special or unlucky. I felt that life was like this - for everyone. The world is, for the most part, unpredictable. Problems happen, and when things do not go as planned, it is often because of something beyond our control.
This is difficult for Westerners to accept. Especially because we live in the shadows of the Enlightenment, we feel that we have the power to make life bend at our will. We should, as many social networks dictate, to "enjoy the moment" and "make a difference in the world". We should be able to make our lives happier and fuller. If we can not do this, it may be because we have gone the wrong way or we have not tried hard enough. This, by chance, is the root of a bad disdain in many Western societies by homeless people or addicts, on the grounds that living a decent life is just a matter of willpower and that it is not possible for them have struggled hard enough - and such reasoning holds up until we find ourselves in the same position and realize that this may not really be our fault.
However, Seneca's thinking was not that we should give up on enjoying life or changing the world - on the contrary. For him, we should understand that success and failure are rather random results, that we have far less control over it than we suppose, and that instead of assuming that everything will go well, we should prepare ourselves psychologically for things to go wrong.
For this, Seneca proposed to start the day with what he called premeditatio, or premeditation, in which we think of everything that can go wrong: that meeting with the boss, the meeting in the bar, the difficult conversation with the parents. The idea is not to despair, but to understand that even if everything goes wrong, you will still survive - it can be painful, but the ground does not go away.
Seneca also recommended testing this idea in practice. Although he lived well, he would sleep on the kitchen floor from time to time, and he would eat bread to prove to himself that he would survive this way. I like to think of this attitude as constructive pessimism, something other than the sad and cynical pessimism that bitter people often demonstrate. It is realistic that life sometimes brings reverses. He understands that in most of them we are not guilty, and he knows that in most cases we will go through them. I say "in most cases" because there will be a moment that we will not overcome: that of our death. It is so cut off from consciousness that we fall into the illusion that somehow it does not.
As Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and great follower of Seneca, wrote in Meditations: "Do not act as if you would live 10,000 years. Death hangs over his head. As long as you live, while in your power, be good. " For most of us, death will come unexpectedly. Our only job is to live well until this moment.
For most of my life, long before I heard of Seneca, I resisted this stoic and pessimistic way of thinking. I've always been optimistic, jumping from project to project with contagious energy. When things went well, it was great. The problems came when I failed. Now I realize that I did not have a useful way of dealing with those moments other than constantly blaming myself. I got up and started over and over, but it took some energy. There is a limit to fall flat on the floor. With Seneca, I realized that I needed to adjust my view of life by turning my optimism into "excitement" ("I'll be excited if it works out"). The change is subtle, but I've found that way of thinking makes room for a new idea that does not fit into optimism: "It may not work, but life goes on."
This little change brought much peace to me. I still get excited about life and excited about its possibilities, but also less anxious about the chances of something going wrong. And that, I swear, does not stop me from smiling.
David Baker is a journalist, writer, coach, consultant, teacher and one of the founders of The School of Life in Brazil. He was also one of the creators of Wired magazine in the UK, which deals with technology. And he writes regularly for some of the world's most recognized publications.