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Op Eds

In Defense of Optimistic Pessimism

By Matt J. Given, Crimson Opinion Writer
Matt J. Given ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Quincy House.

I’m not a pessimist.

I don’t dwell on things that have gone wrong or might go wrong. I do my best not to be miserable in the face of, well, the state of the world. In fact, on occasion, I’ve been known to look forward to things with a sense of hope — wild, I know.

But recently, as I have doomscrolled through my Twitter feed, watching politicians and celebrities alike sink to new lows and crying at the cancellation of a concert I was really looking forward to after the band broke up, my perspective has been colored somewhat differently. It seems, when something can go wrong, it most certainly will go wrong. If these past few pandemic years have taught me anything, it’s that maybe a healthy dose of pessimism is a good thing. In fact, being sensibly pessimistic is a wonderfully optimistic way to live your life.

Hear me out. I come from the United Kingdom, a famously miserable place. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a bone to pick with the government, their neighbor, or God himself for making the weather so consistently rubbish. Complaining and being generally grouchy is what we do. But one of our favorite national pastimes is making fun of the particular brand of west-coast, Hollywood-smiles, good-vibes-only optimism that has spawned a self-help revolution. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before we were told “You Are a Badass” or how to harness “The Power of Now” (yes, those are real books).

While there is evidence that having a relentlessly optimistic outlook on life has positive effects on happiness, it conjures a different image for me — namely, that of someone hanging a “Live, Laugh, Love” poster in their soft-walled cell as they laugh maniacally about how comfortable their straitjacket is. I just don’t get it. How grating must it be on one’s friends and family to hear nothing but glib platitudes while they go through incredibly tough times? Nothing is more infuriating than someone living in a fantasy land while those around them suffer; it’s like telling a depressed friend to just cheer up.

Instead, perhaps counterintuitively, one of the healthiest things we can do is recognize that the world is absolutely falling apart right now. Our democracy is in decline, civil rights are being systematically rolled back, and the climate disaster is raging on — pick your favorite apocalypse. While thinking positively may be good for one’s health, it’s a matter of perspective: beaming as the world crumbles around you is borderline psychotic.

Imagine, if you will, traveling back in time to meet your boomer relatives as children. They’d look at you like you had three heads if you so much as hinted at the state of the world you’d come from. It would be tough to convince them not to be pessimistic while you told them your wish for 2023 was for the world to finally shake the last vestiges of a deadly pandemic so you could stop carrying a spare mask around when trying to see a movie. That is, if the movie theater hadn’t been destroyed by a routine freak weather event. And if the staff all hadn’t quit because their boss refused to pay them a living wage. Oh, and if the production company hadn’t scrapped the entire movie for cost reasons. Really takes the shine off the golden days, doesn’t it?

Here’s where the optimistic part comes in, though. The pandemic changed how I make plans — contingency plans are a requirement on every holiday, last minute cancellations are no longer a surprise, and frankly, I’m surprised when any public transport or mail is on time anymore. I and many other optimistic pessimists set expectations very low, so as to be either prepared for the worst or pleasantly surprised by anything better. When you think about it, what could be a more optimistic outlook than that? Imagine every single thing in your life being either exactly what you expected, or a nice surprise. The most powerful good-vibes shaman in the world could only dream of a set of outcomes so favorable.

This is not to say that I advocate for misery or detest hope. I firmly believe that we as a generation have the power to fix the problems we face, and to do so will require more than a little faith and belief in ourselves. It is also not to say one should not be resilient — one thing I’ve always admired about Americans is their ability to keep getting up with a smile, no matter how many times they’ve been knocked down. I just think it’s worth taking a look at the world before setting our expectations too high. Take the wins when they come, and don’t worry when it all goes wrong — because it will.

Matt J. Given ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Quincy House.

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