Words by: Sarah Arturi Art by: My Tieu Ly
If I were given a dollar for every time I was told to ‘stay positive’ and to ‘keep my chin up’ in all kinds of negative situations growing up, I’d probably be a millionaire by now. I heard it from everyone — teachers, friends, family, Disney movies, and even fictional characters in books. It helped me through some tough times, I’ll admit, but somehow I always managed to find peace in preparing for the worst. I guess you could say I’m a glass-half-empty kind of girl, and whilst some may believe this mindset is to my detriment, I dare all the optimists to practise what they preach: look on the bright side.
Derived from the Latin word literally meaning ‘the worst’, pessimism is a way of thinking with a particular focus on negative outcomes that could potentially occur in the future. Some describe it as a strategy to help them manage their anxiety when the undesirable plays out, while others think of it as being a realist. Whatever the reasons are, pessimistic attitudes are valid. In fact, humans have been practising pessimism for a very long time. Take Robert L. Leahy, a psychiatrist from Cornell University, who suggested that the survival of the ‘primitive man’ came down to identifying the cons of a dire situation, such as leaving the cave to hunt for food. Okay — I acknowledge that the typical 21st-century human isn’t living the same life as our caveman ancestors, but it makes me think about the possibility that pessimism has always been an important aspect of life. So why does modern society frown upon it?
Now that I’ve dissected the fundamental meaning of pessimistic thinking — down to the roots of our homo sapien MVPs — perhaps I should break down my own roots. My upbringing consisted of my accountant dad always reminding me ‘not to bite off more than I can chew’, mixed with my scientist mum, who analyses the positive and negative outcomes of blood samples for a living. I’m not saying my family life was doom and gloom, but I am a firm believer that “you are who you surround yourself with” — thanks, mum. As a family, whether we were preparing for a relaxing holiday interstate, or installing portable heaters in our bedrooms during winter, it always turned into worrying that we might miss our flight or that our house might burn down. Fortunately, neither of these scenarios ever actually happened, and I believe we have our pessimism to thank. By envisioning the details of everything that could go haywire in a possible reality, we curated an action plan to ensure the imaginable mishaps would not occur. Some may call us worrywarts, but I call it the power of contingency plans.
Since we’re on the topic of reflecting on my childhood, I’ve recently started to recognise when my pessimistic tendencies prevailed during certain events growing up. For example, throughout high school, keeping my expectations low before returning a grade on a test was a ritual to maintain my disappointment if I didn’t do so well. Going for my driver’s licence had me anticipating how I was going to notify my family and friends if I failed after completing my three-point turn in four steps. Even competing in my first school sports event saw me mentally preparing for how I would congratulate the other athletes after finishing last in the 400m sprint (I actually came second last, much to my surprise). Looking back on these times, I can admit I was a tad bit dramatic.
However, I can also admit that my pessimism kept me afloat and held me accountable for not trying my best. In fact, I subconsciously prepared myself to prevent any negative outcomes from playing out, and consequently saw positive results in return. Exhibit A, B, and C: my grades in school were of a high standard, I passed my driving test in one go, and I pushed myself to compete in other long-distance running events no matter where I placed.
Delving deeper into this glorified ode to pessimists, I want to recognise that living in a world that’s obsessed with being happy is exhausting. We’re taught from day dot that the key to happiness is to sweep negativity under the carpet altogether. Otherwise known as toxic positivity — a major contributor to the widespread burnout felt amongst society today — I feel that it is crucial to bring to light the importance of being negative in moderation. Too much positivity can be just as harmful as too much negativity, and it shows. The key difference between tempering everything with a healthy dose of negativity and displaying signs of depression or anxiety is the way we use it to cope. Like anything in life, if it’s bringing us down then it’s probably not right for us, and I encourage anyone feeling tied down by their negative thoughts to speak out to a professional, trusted family member, or companion.
So to all my pessimists out there, it’s time to put a positive spin on pessimism.
As Noah Centineo once said: “it matters not what you’ve done, but what you do with that pessimism for others” — or something like that.