Q: Isn’t It Good to be Pessimistic?

Q: I see all this happiness stuff you’re talking about, but isn’t pessimism ultimately better so you’re never surprised or let down?

A: Not exactly.  Don’t confuse pessimism for preparedness or scenario planning.

I’m part of the global operations leadership team at my company.  We have several all-day meetings a year, and at the last one, we spent some time on leadership skill building.  I took the opportunity to weave Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage into the discussion at several points in the day.  One of the senior people in the room countered me by asking, “I see all this happiness stuff you’re talking about, but isn’t pessimism ultimately better so you’re never surprised or let down?”

I see her point.  She’s suggesting that pessimism means you will think about the bad outcomes so you’re neither let down when they occur nor caught off guard.  Fair point, but she’s confusing the issue a bit, and I think it’s a common and easy misstep, so I wanted to share my thinking with you.

Pessimism is having the negative view of a situation.  That’s it.  It doesn’t mean you do anything to stop that negative from playing out, or to turn it around into a win.  If you were a pessimist, you wouldn’t be able to do that since you’d be stuck looking at things negatively, so you’d miss the win.  And you wouldn’t appreciate not being let down since you’d look at it all negatively anyway.  The pessimist would expect to lose when playing the lottery, but would still feel miserable when they lost because they’d focus on losing.  Actually, let’s be honest, they wouldn’t play in the first place.

What I think she meant is really that we must not be so over-focused on only the good side of things that we miss the potential pitfalls or bad outcomes, and wind up in a bad place as a result.  A fantastic example from my recent experiences is with Winter Storm Nemo.  My staff and I decided that we needed to prepare for the storm as if it ended up as bad or worse than the media was making it out to be.  In doing this, we ensured that we’d keep the operation up and running even if we lost power and people were stuck at home.  Best case scenario, our staff would be prepped for a future event thanks to having a good re-education on what to do in such situations – like a fire drill that people actually take seriously.

Were were running around like mad about the impending white doom?  No.  Were we hopeful that it would be fine and we wouldn’t have any issues?  Of course.  But we were also ready for it not being that way.  The result – we had lots of snow, the staff left early, and we were shut down for a while.  But what didn’t happen is that we didn’t get behind on our work, and we kept the parts of the country that weren’t snowed in functioning.  That’s directly a result of our looking at the storm and finding ways to keep it all ‘happy’ in the end.  We did it.  It wasn’t pessimism.  It was realism and control.

Achor talks a lot about happiness coming from perceived control of situations.  I think this is a key to our success.  We took a negative situation and decided that there is a lot we can control about it beyond the inches that fall.  We used that control to our advantage, and it really amazed me how smoothly things went.

We had a similar situation with Hurricane Sandy, though we didn’t go about it the same way.  The result was not complete chaos, but a markedly worse outcome than here.  I think we learned a lot with Sandy on how we can and should respond, and it really boiled down to control.  Control in our attitude, control in our plans, and control of the things that we directly – well – control.

The pessimist would just think we’d get 10 feet of snow, and we’d be unable to do any work, and everything would fall apart.  Try to plan for a solution, and the pessimist would see it failing.  How are you supposed to execute and impress your customers when you’re too busy making mountains out of molehills (of snow)?

You can apply this to all sorts of situations tied to your healthy, fitness and well being.  Feel a cold coming on?  Not getting enough sleep?  The list goes on.

Be a controlled, planning optimist.  That’s how you enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

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