So much seems to have crashed in 2020. Our lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic. We’ve rarely seen so much pain and devastation around us, with lost lives and livelihoods, not to mention rampant isolation and loneliness.
We were especially unprepared for all this bad news, because we’ve been conditioned by a modern-day epidemic of optimism. We can succeed, if only we work hard enough. We can awaken the giant within. We can take control of our life and live it to its fullest. We can repair the world. We can find meaning in everything we do — and so on.
Advertising and the self-help industry, with their utopian promises, have been driving this optimism inflation for years. They’ve made many of us believe that the “ideal life” was not just attainable but to be expected. The implication was that if we couldn’t reach that ideal, well, maybe we did something wrong or bought the wrong stuff.
This is, needless to say, a recipe for high anxiety. When expectations are so high, we’re bound to disappoint ourselves, to feel envious of others, to feel like we’re always falling short.
When expectations are so high, we’re bound to disappoint ourselves, to feel envious of others, to feel like we’re always falling short.
There is a whole school of thought around the value of healthy pessimism. In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Upside of Pessimism,” Olga Khazan writes that “imagining—and planning for—worst-case scenarios can be more effective than trying to think positively.”
She interviews Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, and author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.”
As Norem says: “When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.”
The problem is that if one doesn’t think of “negative possibilities in very specific terms,” it’s easy to “spiral out of control.” It’s what clinicians call “catastrophizing,” where the negative thoughts are generalized: This talk is going to be a disaster. My whole life is a mess. I’m going to lose my job and my partner’s going to leave me.
“Specificity,” Norem asserts, “is key to having positive effects as opposed to negative effects.”
None of this means that the power of positive thinking isn’t real.
“You have to find ways of working in the world that fits for you,” she says. “If thinking positively leads you to productive action, that’s great. But it doesn’t for everyone. For people who use defensive pessimism, it’s hard for them to force themselves to think positively, and it doesn’t address the real issue of their anxiety.”
One of the popular mantras of the business world is Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong, will.” I once knew someone whose own mantra was, “Murphy was an optimist.”
It certainly feels like we’ve had plenty of Murphy’s Law in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic—an event unlike any of us have ever experienced—has crashed expectations. We’re left humbled and sober.
Perhaps one of the great lessons of 2020 is that we need healthy doses of both optimism and pessimism.
As we approach the post-COVID world, perhaps one of the great lessons of 2020 is that we need healthy doses of both optimism and pessimism. It’s easy to settle for the middle position—realism– but I like the dynamism of opposites. Healthy pessimism can help us better prepare for all the stuff that can (and will) go wrong; while healthy optimism can motivate us to wake up every morning and try to make that stuff go right.