“Look on the bright side!” is no longer just a cliché — it’s seen as a psychological imperative. We are in the golden age of positive thinking, and over and over we’re told that optimistic people lead healthier and more fulfilling lives than everyone else.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism, but there’s also some evidence that telling people to embrace the glass-half-full approach to life at all times is an oversimplification — and a potentially harmful one. Dr. Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, is a leading researcher of a concept called “Defensive Pessimism.” As she has discovered in her work, some people actually harness pessimism in an effective, adaptive manner.
Broadly speaking, Norem and other researchers in her subfield of psychology believe that people fit into one of two categories, defensive pessimists and strategic optimists, with some folks in the middle.
Defensive pessimists are people who keep their expectations on the lower side as a means of helping them prepare for the worst. In the lead-up to a given event or situation, they have a tendency to mentally rehearse all the ways things could go wrong.
Strategic optimists, on the other hand, are people who expect things to go well, and who don’t end up fretting too much about the possibility of negative outcomes. They approach situations confidently without having spent too much time beforehand worrying about what could happen.
Take this very quick test to see which category you fit into, and then keep reading for an explanation of what it all means:
I usually prepare for the worst.
I carefully consider all possible outcomes.
I often think about what might go wrong.
I focus on specific details when I think about what might happen.
Considering what can go wrong helps me to prepare.
On its face, it might sound like strategic optimism is “better,” but according to Norem’s research that isn’t true. Defensive pessimists do fine, in fact — all that worrying and imagining helps ensure they approach situations fully prepared. And overall, there’s no indication that one approach is superior to the other in terms of social, workplace, or any other sort of performance.
What does cause people’s performance to go down is when they are forced into a strategy that doesn’t “fit” their personality — an intervention Norem has performed in lab experiments. When defensive pessimists try to force optimism, for example, it leads them to neglect some of the preparation keyed off by their worrying, causing poorer results. And when optimists are forced to tone it down a bit, they end up becoming anxious in a manner that does hinder their performance.
Some people don’t fit neatly into either category: They sit in the middle, somewhere between defensive pessimism and strategic optimism. What this means, according to Norem, is that they either use different strategies depending on the circumstances — maybe they’re a defensive pessimist about money and a strategic optimist about their social life — or that they simply don’t use either strategy consistently.
Whatever your results, the key insight here is that everyone has their own strategy for dealing with potentially stressful or challenging situations; we adapt in a manner that's shaped by our own personality, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some people's “comfort zones” actually involve a fair amount of anxiety — and that's okay.