A Case for Pessimism

People who know me know I’m a generally upbeat person, someone who usually strives to find the good and positive aspect of a situation (for the most part).  I would describe it as always searching and striving for hope, despite difficult or seemingly overwhelming circumstances (which is probably a good thing since I’m a life coach, and often communicate with people who aren’t always able to see the light at the end of the tunnel).

People who know me also know I live with a pessimist for a spouse.  In our initial dating and marriage years, this pessimism thing really threw me through a loop – how can anyone be a pessimist and be okay with knowing that about themselves?  Shouldn’t we all strive to be optimistic in life?  Isn’t everyone in society always telling us to be positive all the time?  And if being positive is indeed linked with being happy, then why isn’t everyone an optimist?

With all of those questions in mind, below is the experience I have had living with a pessimist (as well as having pessimist friends), and unlike what society might imply, I have found that pessimists serve a vital role in society, and one that not only doesn’t deserve shame but deserves our respect and attention.


1. Pessimists often see things for how they truly are.

Optimists love to live in the clouds.  We like to think that our perfect job is right around the corner, that our relationships are healthy and bursting with potential, and that our lives couldn’t be better and our goals are always in reach.  Living in the clouds means seeing things in a way that, isn’t necessarily distorted from reality, but have less probability of coming true than what reality would normally dictate.  The key word here for optimists is “potential.”  What’s the potential for my career, relationships, health, and overall life?

Those are great things to consider, however pessimists would be quick to point out that reality might have something quite different to say about those.  While it might not be fun to hear, maybe your dream job is simply not possible to pursue at the moment, or perhaps your relationship is on rockier ground than you might think.

As such, pessimists compliment optimists by bringing them down from the clouds and into a more pragmatic place where decisions can be made from a place of hope AND reality, a great combination for responsible decision making.


2. Pessimists help keep people honest and keep pride in check.

It won’t come as a big surprise to announce that men often have issues with their pride; that is, we often like to think of ourselves as just a tad bit more important than we really are.  Okay, okay, our heads swell to the point of bursting in our perception of our man-dom.  But not to worry!  There exists a solution to men’s (and yes everyone’s) over confidence – the pessimists!  Yes, the pessimists who won’t shy away from telling us about all of our horrible facets and weaknesses in life, who revel in showing us our “growth opportunities” (if we’re being politically correct) that we all have.

But let’s take a moment here and ask ourselves what type of friend we wish we were.  Would we rather be the friend who serves as the “yes man” and just tells people everything they want to hear, or would we rather be the friend who tells it as it is, despite it potentially hurting our other friend in the short-term (since they might need to hear it for their own good)?  The latter risks the relationship, but does so with good intentions and long-term relational thinking, and I would argue that we can’t truly love someone if we’re not willing to risk the relationship from time to time with sage advice and feedback.

The pessimistic friends we have in life are often the ones who keep us from thinking of ourselves as more than we are, and often make the best best-friends in life.


3. Pessimists serve as evidence for why being positive all the time is cliché at best and damaging at worst.

If there’s one thing we all know about pessimists, it’s that they’re not exactly the most positive people in the world.  However, I want to raise this question:  what’s so wrong with that?  What is in us (and in society) that makes us feel we have to walk around being positive all the time, else we may not be getting the most out of life, or that we may be a downer to other people?  Is that really who we want to be, an always happy, always positive, always cheerful, always optimistic person despite the varying circumstances that happen in life?

I don’t think we do, and pessimists can serve to be the antonym essentially of the always-positive people who often appear as “fake,” since we all know that bad things happen, and tragedies happen, and that the “real” response to those situations is sometimes negative feelings and emotions, which is okay.  When we look at a pessimist who doesn’t have a phony fake exterior, and we see them succeeding in life and we see them having deep relationships with others, we can start to realize that maybe we don’t always need to be happy in front of others.  Maybe our friends and family could benefit from seeing the real side of us more often – and if they get offended, that’s okay too.  Ask yourself if you want a friend or family member who doesn’t want to be around you just because you might be having a bad day and seem “negative” or grouchy.  We need others who will be a part of our life despite our current mood, and instead see us for the whole person we truly are.

Thanks pessimists for demonstrating that all important authenticity we humans (and optimists) often lack!


4. Pessimists help us prepare for the worst case scenarios in life.

Pessimistic people are quick to point out how a good situation can quickly turn to bad, or how a bad situation can turn worse.  Again, what a downer, right!?  Well, maybe yes, but maybe we need to consider that worst case scenario.

Take buying a motorcycle, for example.  Maybe your friend is considering buying one and is so caught up in motorcycle frenzy that they haven’t considered the safety risks in getting one.  Pessimistic friend that you are, you feel the need to point those risks out to them.  They may heed your advice, or they may not, but at least they now have that idea in their head and can take the appropriate and responsible actions to ward against physical injury.

But that line of responsible decision making comes at a cost, and that cost is a reduction in short-term happiness, since you mentioning that note of caution could have brought down your friend’s excitement around the idea of riding the bike down a long winding road with the wind in their hair and the world at their back.  Such costs are inevitable if one is friends with a pessimist, but I think we can agree that paying such a cost is often worth it if we end up making the best decision in the end.  Pessimists are often the most responsible decision makers of us all, even if they sometimes struggle with throwing caution to the wind at times :-)


5. Pessimists do a great job at highlighting suffering.

Much like the previous point, pessimists also are quick to point out the various suffering in the world.  It usually occurs in the form of a comparison; for example, maybe you point out how unfortunate the cold weather really is today, but of course, leave it to your pessimist friend who quickly points out the crazy winter storms in the north-east which has been stranding people by the hundreds, and how it could be worse for you and them.

Pessimists are often seen as people with the worst empathetic skill sets, since no matter what someone complains of, they can always see the situation as worse.  However, I would argue that there is micro and macro levels of empathy, where optimists often empathize with individuals in the moment (because they see the suffering right in front of them), and pessimists more often empathize with groups not present (since they can imagine worse scenarios than the suffering in front of them).  And I think this is really important, since we all need a wide-angle lens of the world to remember that it’s not always just about us, and instead suffering is often present in people and places that we don’t always interact with.


Do you have a pessimistic friend whom you really respect, and if so why do you respect them?  If you’re an optimist, how can you do a better job of seeing the world as it truly is?  If you’re a pessimist, how can you do a better job of seeing the brighter side of things so that hope is not all but extinguished!?  Share your thoughts as always below.


About the Author:

The owner of Life by John and a specialist in the field of career and life coaching, John Patterson helps people every day with various relationship, career, and general life issues that have a direct impact on their lives. John spends most of his free time with his wife Sheila and their two cats Kitty and Spock.