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Pessimism Can Be Good For You

Defensive pessimists use their worries about the worst possible outcomes as catalysts to work toward good outcomes.

a partially-filled glass on a white and black background

The classic pessimist/optimist question: Are these glasses half-empty or half-full? (Jan, Flickr)

What do you think is more conducive toward being healthy: optimism or pessimism?

It’s easy to say optimism; there’s a lot of evidence suggesting optimism correlates with better health and well-being. And if you said that, you’re right that being optimistic is generally good for well-being.

But some types of pessimism may have health benefits, too. First, let me make it clear that I’m talking about something called “defensive pessimism.” It’s a type of pessimism that involves expecting the worst but using that expectation as motivation to take action to avoid a bad outcome.

Preparing For The Worst

Here’s an example. Say you’re a student and have a big test coming up. If you’re a defensive pessimist and are anxious about failing, you use that anxiety as a catalyst to studying to make sure you don’t fail.

But what if you’re so anxious and gloomy that you don’t have faith that studying will help, and so you don’t study? Then you’re not a defensive pessimist. You’re just a pessimist, or perhaps depressed or anxious in a way that leads you to avoid taking action.

How this relates to health is that it’s about preparing to prevent negative outcomes. For example, when flu season rolls around, a defensive pessimist worried about getting the flu may harness that worry to take preventive action, like frequently washing their hands and seeking care when they notice symptoms.

So, pessimism can benefit health as long as you use it to motivate yourself to do things that promote health.

Thank you to Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield for reviewing this episode’s script.

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