4 February 2021 – Mukesh Kapila
This article is for born pessimists like myself. It is worth writing because there are a whopping 1.5 billion of us i.e. 20% of the world.
Similar numbers are said to be either optimistic or trusting personalities, and 30% are envious types, while the remaining 10% are unclassifiable or unpredictable (including several in recent or current leadership positions). According to this (admittedly questionable) research around game theory, the findings show (yet again) that humans act emotionally. This should be considered seriously in social and economic policy-making.
To readers who will undoubtedly assert that this piece is skewed towards the pessimistic side of life, I would say that even if you dwell – by good fortune or a sunny temperament – in the half-full section of the glass, spare a thought for those who are trapped – by misfortune or gloomy disposition – in the half-empty zone.
To start, I make an unapologetic case for pessimism. Its time has come! A ruinous 2020 has given way to an uncertain 2021. My previous end-year article on the state of the world evoked disparate feedback. Most found it an useful overview of the numerous, inter-connected global challenges that confront us. However, sensitive souls chided my analysis for getting them thoroughly depressed, while others found comfort in sticking their head in the sand.
The current year advances with many ‘mutant’ strains of COVID-19, ever more stringent lockdowns and border restrictions, the opening salvoes of the Great Vaccine War, and the possibility of anal swabs to detect the last lurking coronavirus. Meanwhile, the impoverishment of millions, the abuse and exploitation of countless others, and the deepening of myriad humanitarian crises continues, even as the disastrous consequences of climate change gather pace. Other health problems such as antimicrobial resistance (far more dangerous that COVID-19 in the longer term) are also smouldering.
American democracy has survived but remains fragile, pinning its hopes on returning an earlier set whose careless liberalism had inadvertently allowed Trumpism to emerge. Their old-style panaceas bring comfort but are too late for democracy elsewhere which has already mutated into various authoritarian forms against which herd immunity is fast waning and there is no vaccine. Meanwhile, oppressive violence combined with censorship (even Twitter has joined the latter bandwagon!) is the normalised way to manage society’s discontents. Human rights are no longer about the noble ambition of advancing them everywhere but about mitigating human wrongs here and there.
The shield of multilateralism that traditionally protects small, poor countries has been well and truly pierced by the self-interested arrows of big, well-endowed nations. Meanwhile, the stewards of global co-operation – the major international organisations – bleat on the sidelines, having become too big and bloated to succeed in an age that needs nimbleness and pragmatism rather than centralised control-freakery justified by pious principles.
Perhaps that is why the calls for solidarity by privileged global personalities and institutional leaders increasingly irritate because their social media curated empathy seems tone deaf to left-behind countries and mistrustful peoples. Their pain is hardly soothed by smug public health specialists preaching the vision of a fragmented world living in sanitised bubbles while the lives and livelihoods of those unable to find such refuge leach away.
I hope that I have said enough to make the case that our global glass is half empty. In fairness, there are reasons to also argue that the glass is half full. Take, for example, the new vaccines against COVID-19. The optimists can barely control their excitement at the prospect of near-instant jabs for all. But the pessimists know that in a unfair world, the rich will get them first and the sooner that happens the better because it will hasten the turn of the poor until we get to the holy grail of herd immunity. This is not about right or wrong, justice or injustice, equity or inequity, or of epidemiological modelling. We all know what should be the rationally correct and humanely compassionate thing to do but it does beg a question on whether an optimism-based hopefulness or a pessimism-centered realism will achieve the best possible real-world outcome? Perhaps, as Mark Twain said, pessimists are just better-informed optimists.
Thus, how are convinced pessimists to navigate the prevalent gloom? We could, of course, try to mend our mindset and convert to optimism. There is a case for doing so as research shows that the optimistic types live happier, longer, and relate better to others. That appears to be the sentiment embraced with gusto by the Chinese leadership to “re-educate” the unfortunate Uighurs in forced labour camps.
Meanwhile, contrary findings suggest that optimists are less successful in life because they tend towards rash risk-taking while being prone to wishful fantasies. They are also more surprised when crises come along and may not cope well when the gap between magical thinking and ground realities widens. Their coping strategy often relies on running away from uncomfortable or inconvenient stresses and blaming others, rather than facing up to whatever life is throwing at them.
Pessimists should, therefore, neither envy the optimists nor lament their own gloomy nature. Their upside comes from being better prepared for tough times by foreseeing obstacles better, and exercising prudence in risk taking. Pessimists are also more resilient by investing more in safety nets because we are always expecting things to go wrong.
In short, we pessimists are less likely to make a drama out of a crisis in contrast to optimists. After all, we are used to bad things happening and derive satisfaction from saying “I told you so” when the worst happens or occasionally, enjoying a pleasant surprise when things don’t turn out as bad as feared.
Sometimes, our pessimism is a literal life-saver as I have witnessed numerous times. Observing the alluvial island dwellers of Bangladesh showed me that those fishermen and farmers who expected the worst when the seasonal floods and periodic cyclones came were more resilient, resourceful and survived better than the ones who held an optimistic view of their fate and relied on the aid that I was offering them on behalf of a donor. An even more dramatic example was provided in the Rwandan genocide: those who fled when they felt that their fate was sealed were more likely to have survived than those who placed their hope in protection from the international community that I represented.
Of course, pessimists are at risk of some serious downsides such as anxiety, depression, and sometimes a disabling lack of self-esteem. But cognitive behaviour therapy gives tips to control the extreme depths of morbid thinking. However, while behavioural tricks are useful, they are unlikely to alter one’s basic personality type.
Meanwhile, while we pessimists only risk our own selves, deliberately-inculcated optimism bias is dangerous to others by encouraging narcissism in politicians and influencers, and delusional disregards within wider society. We have learnt this to our cost in recent times. I have also seen this at close quarters among some of my high-ranking bosses and peers, with whom I have had the privilege of working.
So, how to manage the optimists? Perhaps they could also practice cognitive behaviour therapy with three key exercises borrowed from the school of Stoic philosophy. This was founded in Athens around 300 BCE, and its ancient practitioners included the wise Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the legendary ex-slave Epictetus, and the venerated statesman Seneca.
More recent Stoicists include US President Theodore Roosevelt, American civil rights marcher John Lewis, and Nelson Mandela (during his long incarceration) as well as several highly-successful generals, musicians, writers, and business leaders. They were all inspirational and ambitious (e.g. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”) but became effective only when they vaccinated their minds against unbridled optimism.
Pessimists like me do the following exercise naturally but my optimist friends will benefit from practicing negative visualisation i.e. pre-meditating on all bad things that could happen and fortifying themselves accordingly. That includes deliberately conjuring-up everything that could stop them from succeeding. As Seneca said, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectations.”
Second, optimists will benefit from positively relishing the adversities that strike as part of the inevitable vicissitudes of life. This is like the second dose of a vaccine that builds longer-term resilience against complacency. As Epictetus said, “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.”
The third exercise is the most difficult one, especially for those optimists who are blind without their rose-tinted spectacles. This is about overcoming obstacles through accepting or becoming indifferent to them and, better still, actively seeking them out. The words of Marcus Aurelius help: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
By such regular practice, the otherwise unbridled optimists (who are important as they number a staggering 1.5 billion i.e. 20% of the world) can mitigate their most dangerous impulses and contribute better (more safely!) in these deeply troubled times. They owe this for the common public good. Besides, by the defining logic of pessimists, we cannot save the world on our own.