Optimism vs. Pessimism

Excerpt from the essay “One Cheer for Melancholy” by Susanna Kaysen

A couple of my friends are chronic optimists. They are often disappointed because things didn’t work out as well as they have expected. I have never had such a feeling because I’m a pessimist. I get my disappointment over with beforehand. If things don’t work out, I’m smug because I predicted it. If they do, I’m pleasantly surprised. Any psychiatrist can tell you this is a standard defense mechanism against disappointment and loss. But so is optimism—and optimism is a lousy defense mechanism because more than half the time it leaves you feeling bad.

My main objection to optimism is that it’s incorrect. Things are somewhat more likely to turn out badly. Taking the long view, things are definitely going to turn out badly, since we all die at the end. I once read a study of “depressives” and “normal people” predicting outcomes in real-life situations. The depressives’ predictions were more often right. The pessimistic outlook is actually the realistic one.

If the price of being happier is an occluded worldview, I don’t want to pay it. I’d rather see things clearly. Seeing things clearly, for me, is a sort of happiness, even if what I see is banal or sad. Does one of my friends turn on me every time I get depressed? Does another get pleasure from putting me down? Do the idiotic events of history continue to repeat themselves, with tragic consequences? Yes, yes, and yes—but at least I know what I’m up against.

I also know that I am supposed to say that there are serious drawbacks to the melancholic temperament. Deep depression is debilitating. As doctors and drug manufacturers like to remind us, depression can be fatal. Public health officials talk about all the time “wasted” by being depressed. And yet, it’s not an uncommon activity, wasting time in this way. If the depressive and manic-depressive constitutions are such a liability, why are they rather prevalent in the human population? One answer may be balance. Together we make a complete picture.

So, I guess that’s why my nursing career has led me to the cheery field of hospice. Suits my melancholy personality just fine, no one expects me to be Sally Sunshine, and everybody knows what to expect at the end. The goal is always the same, a peaceful death. What more can you ask for? That’s pretty optimistic, isn’t it?


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