Join 3,425 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Pessimism
April 15, 2010 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Pandora, Prometheus, and Pessimism. "Pessimism deserves serious consideration in today’s culture of Oprah-quick-fix happiness, Prozac induced euphoria, and unjustified optimism for our species. Unlike Oprah and Prozac, pessimism is not easy to swallow. It is time we consider this tradition in a culture steeped in farcical, puerile conceptions of happiness; an environment where every person who is able to grin on a book-cover can tell us how to achieve happiness now; where angels or god or some other fairy-tale character cares about our actions in this world. Life is not a grand, heroic narrative with a happy ending. It is not a place where we are overcoming obstacles in order to achieve a time in our lives of perfect serenity. In order to combat such serious obstructions to clear-thought, boundaries to reality and gateways to delusion, pessimism can help us shape our thoughts on matters which resonate with all us rational, bipedal apes."
posted by homunculus (65 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fwiw, I have read the Dienstag book referred to in the link, and can recommend it.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:11 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd read this, but what's the point? We're all going to die someday.
posted by mullingitover at 6:12 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:15 PM on April 15, 2010 [11 favorites]


"As Gorky says, 'Miserable being must find more miserable being.'"
--Russian wolfhound, in the pound, Lady and the Tramp
posted by emhutchinson at 6:18 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Prozac does not induce euphoria. Fuck you. How's that for negativity and pessimism?
posted by strixus at 6:19 PM on April 15, 2010 [14 favorites]


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.

Glad to see you're feeling better, Pangloss.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:21 PM on April 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


Eh, it's interesting reading in a contemplating-one's-navel sort of way. However, I just can't get behind the idea that we need more sourpusses.
posted by Pragmatica at 6:27 PM on April 15, 2010


Oh please. All I ever hear from people is pessimism and cynicism.

Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.

QFT.
posted by DU at 6:28 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The funny thing about brains is that they allow us to have different perspectives on different issues and situations. Hence one may be a pessimist and an optimist simultaneously. I'm also tired of hearing about the amount of water in glasses. Half a pint of water will, in most situations, refresh and hydrate you quite effectively. Then later on you get another half pint from the tap or the fridge. If the half pint or the full pint of water is, however, all the water that is left in the world, then it doesn't matter too much either way.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:35 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The devoted pessimist finds life full of pleasant surprises. It's the optimists who are always being disappointed.
posted by warbaby at 6:35 PM on April 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


Don't confuse depression with pessimism. I have the former fully under control, partly through the use of chemical agents (prozac and wellbutrin, but not both at once), but I have enthusiastically embraced the latter and honestly feel that it contributes to my peace of mind.

In the words of Mel Brooks' pitch-perfect Russian folk song in "The Twelve Chairs":

Hope for the best, expect the worst,
Some drink champagne, some die of thirst,
No way of knowing
Which way it’s going,
Hope for the best, expect the worst!

Hope for the best, expect the worst,
The world’s a stage, we’re unrehearsed,
Some reach the top, friends,
While others drop, friends,
Hope for the best, expect the worst!

I knew a man who made a fortune that was splendid
Then he died the day he’d planned to go and spend it

Hope for the best, expect the worst,
You could be Tolstoy or Fanny Hurst.
You take your chances,
There are no answers,
Hope for the best expect the worst!

Hope for the best, expect the worst,
The rich are blessed, the poor are cursed,
That is a fact, friends,
The deck is stacked, friends,
Hope for the best, expect the worst!

Even with a good beginning,
It’s not certain that you’re winning;
Even with the best of chances,
They can kick you in the pantses...
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:36 PM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I guess what I'm saying is that I'm an optimist provided there is a tap.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:36 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm reminded of a quote:

"We are all born American but we all die French."

I tend to agree with the assessment in the FPP that there's a lucrative Happiness Industry out there, and there's all kinds of people, well-intentioned or not, who want you to join the party. Well, maybe that party doesn't appeal to the intellectual sensibilities of your garden variety pessimist - or realist for that matter. For those interested in a scientific approach to how our minds seek happiness I'd recommend Dan Gilbert's work.
posted by quadog at 6:40 PM on April 15, 2010


The International United Pessimists Theme Song.
posted by The Whelk at 6:41 PM on April 15, 2010


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.

Personally, I'm just as dumb as the next mammal, yet I have no trouble at all consistently trying to do what's right or trying to make things better while at the same time facing the fact that many things don't actually get better or that they don't generally improve as some linear, predictable result of one's efforts.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:41 PM on April 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


Everyone tries to make the world better. It's just that the world is really small for some people and it only includes themselves and their immediate kin. Pessimism has nothing to do with it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:47 PM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


why do we continue to live? What are we living for? To answer this question is to already overlook another fact: that life is intrinsically worth living or enduring

I think we disagree on the definition of 'fact'.
posted by jacalata at 6:54 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


"It is time we consider this tradition in a culture steeped in farcical, puerile conceptions of happiness; an environment where every person who is able to grin on a book-cover can tell us how to achieve happiness now; where angels or god or some other fairy-tale character cares about our actions in this world. Life is not a grand, heroic narrative with a happy ending."
What's more puerile? Oprah making a career out of facile optimism or Gray making a career out of facile pessimism. E.M. Cioran he is not.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:59 PM on April 15, 2010


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better

Are you fucking kidding me? Are you really saying no pessimist has ever done anything to make the world a better place? Do you seriously think pessimists are bunch of people pretending to be smart? This is one of the most singularly stupid statements I have ever heard. Pessimism has nothing to do with your commitment to the greater good or any other principles.
posted by Kirk Grim at 7:02 PM on April 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


Sometimes happiness is just a matter of putting down the books, going outside, and interacting with and experiencing the world.

I read several paragraphs of this article and couldn't relate.
posted by MillMan at 7:03 PM on April 15, 2010


Let me ask some questions: who do you want coding your software, a pessimist or an optimist? Who do you want engineering your bridges, a pessimist or an optimist? Who do you want flying your plane? Servicing your train? Think of all of the things you purchase and the services you consume — do you want someone who hopes for the best or plans for the worst?

Pessimism is unloved because it detracts from the giddy high from not preparing, not thinking things through, and generally figuring it will all work out. Optimists have little tolerance for that sort of thing, because, dang, that's not a happy thought! I have yet to see an optimist who isn't surrounded by a support network of pessimists doing the worrying and preparation for them.

Optimists outsource. It's always someone else's problem, be the economy or climate. Just one Gloomy Gus after another trying to bring down the party. Don't get me wrong, I am sure it is great to ignore the idea that suffering is more or less built into the Universe, arising from basic interactions the way, say, uranium does. It's a luxury afforded mostly on the misery of others, by assuming that the future will work out, that your grandkids will deal with the environment, and that the shiny new toy you have is of course made by comfortable workers in some Mom'n'Pop shop for a good wage.

Optimism sucks because it makes taking care of business to be eternally Someone Else's Problem.
posted by adipocere at 7:14 PM on April 15, 2010 [30 favorites]


There is an understandable confusion in this article, in this thread, and perhaps in our own views as well, about pessimism as an intellectual position and pessimism as a psychological predisposition.

I personally find it hard to avoid a philosophical (and IMO an unavoidably factual) pessimistic position as being the most honest intellectual stake in the ground.

However, I find it more useful and fulfilling to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, whether it be through watching the enthusiasm of younger optimists, meditating, looking up at the stars, or taking meds.
posted by kozad at 7:16 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


um yeah...prozac does NOT induce euphoria. it induces functionality which can induce one to beileve there is a glass, which may be half-full or may be half-empty...
posted by supermedusa at 7:20 PM on April 15, 2010


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.

This very sentiment is canvassed in the article:
“Trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect,” says A.C. Grayling. “That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.”
and informs its conclusion. Did you actually read it? I suspect not.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:21 PM on April 15, 2010


In order to be happy you first must believe in the possibility of happiness. I stole that from Tolstoy. No idea who he stole it from.

The character who says this died at Borodino with tens thousands other unfortunate dudes.
posted by bukvich at 7:21 PM on April 15, 2010


... dude I'm really coming up on this Prozac right now...
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:23 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Beyond coding, where is emergency preparedness without pessimism? Where is insurance when you get in an accident? Risk management? Contingency planning? Dismissing pessimism leads to things like removing 40% of the national guard from Louisiana thinking "surely the levees won't break." It leads to invading countries with about half the recommended troops and assuming you'll be greeted with flowers as liberators.

Pessimism is a tool used by people who realize shit happens and try to get ready for when it does. It doesn't help that a bunch of optimistic morons dismiss us as cranks.
posted by Kirk Grim at 7:24 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


We're all gonna die and life kinda sucks for most people much of the time. Whoop-de-fucking-do. People who regard the world with some degree of experience, which is to say many adults, don't usually brag about how pessimistic they are because, you know, they feel it their aging bones. But when you're fourteen years old all that death and fucked-uppery is a new perspective on life, I guess, and worth thinking about. Looking at all those books he's written on this topic, John Gray seems to be quite the precocious fourteen year old.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:31 PM on April 15, 2010


Pessimism is the assumption of the negative and optimism the assumption of the positive. Why can't we make no assumptions and remain neutral?
posted by aesacus at 7:33 PM on April 15, 2010


Optimism sucks because it makes taking care of business to be eternally Someone Else's Problem.

TESTIFY!
posted by Kirk Grim at 7:39 PM on April 15, 2010


Why can't we make no assumptions and remain neutral?

To make no assumptions is to make no judgements, and therefore be incapable of any action. We all assume the sun will come up tomorrow, for example... well, most of us. Underlying every single action you take, be it your next vote, meal, step, or breath, is a giant pile of assumptions. It's the entire basis of reason. To survive without, you'd have to be comatose.
posted by mek at 7:40 PM on April 15, 2010


As concretely pointed out above, the reason optimists are able (read: have the luxury) to see the glass as half full is that there are pessimists refilling the glass (and making sure the water supply is safe, and that the glass isn't broken, or stolen..) I don't mind that so much as that optimists giddily deride the pessimists who make their happy lifestyle viable..
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 7:44 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not convinced either is superior.
posted by clockzero at 7:52 PM on April 15, 2010


Neither is superior, they're both totally necessary. One is necessary to be prepared, the other to make the preparations worth doing.
posted by Kirk Grim at 7:54 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


...there's a lucrative Happiness Industry out there, and there's all kinds of people, well-intentioned or not, who want you to join the party.

Pessimism, on the other hand, knows its not a welcomed guest, so it wears many disguises and false faces.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:56 PM on April 15, 2010


I'm not convinced either is superior.

That's sort of my feeling too. As in many things, a middle way seems best. Both optimism and pessimism seem to put too much importance on the fact of our being human: the former by believing the world somehow actively accommodates our needs, and the latter by believing the world somehow actively undermines our needs. The truth seems that the world likely has no active role either way, and therefore taking something like an "accidentalist" position makes more sense. In other words, live long enough and one will be granted both good fortune and bad fortune: it's all in the timing.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:07 PM on April 15, 2010


I'm going to optimistically hope this guy got an A when he handed this Philosophy 100 paper in.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:09 PM on April 15, 2010


Optimists Are Better Than Pessimists

Optimists are better for society than pessimists. If society were run by pessimists, they would do nothing and society would fail. Pessimists don't help society because they think it will end up bad no matter what. This is why pessimists are bad for society.

On the other hand, optimists do many good things for us. Because they think positively for society, optimists do the good things they think of. Have you ever seen if Mahatma Ghandi were a pessimist? No, because then the world would be very different. Also look at Rosa Parks. And so we see that optimists are better for society than pessimists.
posted by yaymukund at 8:33 PM on April 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm not sure either is necessary, to be honest, but I suppose they're inevitable. They're tendencies of the mind. What people say about their relative merit strikes me as rationalization.
posted by clockzero at 8:43 PM on April 15, 2010


So experiencing joy and happiness in the world and the few good things it offers is a bad thing now too? And I was just starting to get the hang of this 'having a good day once and a while' thing, too.

(goes back to frowning at everyone and hating the world - am I an accetable human being yet?)
posted by sandraregina at 8:48 PM on April 15, 2010


So...if you don't like pessimists and think they are making the world worse, does that make you a pessimistic optimist?
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:50 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


“That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.”

Pfft. It figures.
Pessimism isn't nihilism. Although a great deal of contemporary criticism is nihilism masquerading as intillecual supr.. y'know, the thing he said up there (and there's criticism of modern pessimism in the piece in terms of equivocation - something I think most readers from here would be familiar with)

But we do finally end in oblivion. And yet, here we are.

I remember some time ago I was struggling (literally) against death under completely hopeless odds. I was going to die (in fact, I did, for a few minutes) and there was nothing I could do about it. I knew this. I was not in a panic. There was no animal need driving me. I understood completely my situation. And as I was taking a moment's respite from driving my muscles further into exhaustion for completely no reason at all and debating whether I should just give up or not something deep inside me asked a question: What the hell else do you have to do?
So I kept going.
As it happens, I got rescued. Which is completely besides the point. There was no destiny there. No greater purpose. No mystical path but no reason to it. One carries on or - doesn't.

I suppose that could be optimism (fuck it, keep going), but not in the sense the author intends. Indeed, that seems to be his ultimate definition of pessimism.

The question 'what are we living for?' reminds me of Bill Hicks' waffle waitress asking 'what are you reading for?' except if she were within the book. If you weren't doing it, you couldn't be asking it.

Pain and suffering, that's a different story - some people see a 1/2 glass of water and ask why it's half empty, some look at a 1/2 glass of water and ask who stole their whiskey.

On the other hand, some people do need prozac so the comparison (in the piece) isn't so apt. And I don't think them 'weak' by any means. I've seen real depression, it's not optional. And indeed, how possible is live without some illusions. Not delusions, but some self-made illusions can be (psychologically speaking) healthy. Given the psychotic method of transportation in the U.S. (more Americans have been killed in car accidents than in wars fought by Americans) I think the illusion of control is absolutely vital. Otherwise perhaps driving would be even more lethal. Although that's illusion vs. depression, not vs. philosophical depression.

I can't say I disagree with the DPR (and this piece does seem to boil down to it): "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."
posted by Smedleyman at 8:52 PM on April 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, Schopenhauer wasn't a pessimist. He was a cranky ass old bastard whose only friend was his yappy lap dog. There's a big difference.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:53 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


a is for adamitism, for god loves naked loins
b is for bullionism, which values metal coins
c is catabaptism, that infants must keep dry
d is ditheletism, that Christ could both laugh and cry
e is for eidolism, for spectres and for ghosts
f is finalism, that an end is sure for most
gymnobiblists deliver up the scripture without gloss
hylomorphism believes that matter is the boss
i is for ignorantism (but I know not what it means)
kathenotheism holds each god is single and supreme
jainism favours those who sweep up every street
laicism despises both the cleric and the priest
meliorism states that it's all becoming better
nomists think we must abide by laws down to the letter
o is for omnism, belief in every creed
pansexualism thinks that thought is sprung from sexual need
q is quietism - just sit still and think -
r is for romanticism, into which the artists sink
s is siderism, that the stars control our fate
titanism holds we must rebel, defy the state
u is undulationism, that light consists of waves
v is vitalism, the force that through life slaves
w is for wahhabism (I do not like it much)
xenophobism hates foreigners, especially the Dutch
y is "yellow journalism" - quite the silliest I've heard
z is zootheism, and that god is a beast or bird

Please ensure that every person to but one ism clutches firm:
They’re much easier to criticise when narrowed to a single term
posted by the quidnunc kid at 8:55 PM on April 15, 2010 [10 favorites]


Prozac induced euphoria

Can I just take this opportunity to say that one of my absolute pet peeves is when those who fancy themselves Aldous-Huxley-esque visionaries drop this sort of bullshit as evidence of the softening of the American mind or whatever. It's like Christan Science for the intellectual. Do you really believe that namechecking an assortment of dead philosophers, rather than spending five minutes researching your assumptions, makes for a more persuasive argument about our contemporary cultural mindset? Or about human nature? Do you really prefer to just go ahead and take the risk that your assumptions might be ignorant, offensive, and factually incorrect and you will look like a tool, simply because those assumptions support your worldview? GRRARRGGH I HATE IT!!!!
posted by granted at 9:02 PM on April 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


who do you want coding your software, a pessimist or an optimist? Who do you want engineering your bridges, a pessimist or an optimist? Who do you want flying your plane? Servicing your train?

I say toss 'em both out and get a realist.

Look, both optimism and pessimism can be used to justify either being proactive and constructive or loafing around. The proactive optimist is driven by the energy that comes from being certain things can be done, the pessimist by the need to get them done while they're still possible. Their lazier comrades see optimism as a reason not to bother personally because "it'll turn out all right" and pessimism as an invitation not to "fight the inevitable."
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:13 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


This essay made me feel inspired. Thank you.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:28 PM on April 15, 2010


From the post (sorry I don't know how to link directly to this spot - it's in the 2nd para in "Existentialism & Pessimism"):

People would be terrified knowing that their morality is entirely their responsibility, not written by a celestial hand against the rock of reality.

The last paragraph in Gray's Straw Dogs:

"Other animals do not see a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"

These things resonate with me.
posted by kneecapped at 10:00 PM on April 15, 2010


Prozac induced euphoria

You Fail Neurochemistry Forever.

Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.

What? Seems to me, if we're going to make huge generalizations, that a pessimist would be more likely to work to change things than an optimist; the optimist need not exert him- or herself since things are so very likely to go well anyway, while the pessimist thinks that things probably won't go well, and so tries to rectify that. As smedleyman said, pessimism isn't nihilism. I'm a pessimist and I'm very involved in trying to make the world better than it is, because I see how *crappy* it is.

In any given situation, optimists end up either right or disappointed, while pessimists end up either right or delighted.

In order to be happy you first must believe in the possibility of happiness.

Why do you assume a pessimist doesn't believe in the possibility of happiness? I'm a very happy pessimist. When I'm taking my Prozac.

Have you ever seen if Mahatma Ghandi were a pessimist? No, because then the world would be very different. Also look at Rosa Parks. And so we see that optimists are better for society than pessimists.

I sincerely hope that entire comment (complete with centered and underlined "title") is an essay from a sixth-grade C-student, because boy howdy it sure reads that way. Is that pessimistic or optimistic of me?
posted by tzikeh at 10:04 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


tzikeh: pretty sure the underline "optimists are better than pessimists" thing was satire, and it was pretty funny either way.
posted by Kirk Grim at 10:09 PM on April 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


So experiencing joy and happiness in the world and the few good things it offers is a bad thing now too?

Joy and happiness are instantaneous states of hedonic tone. Optimism and pessimism are predictive models used to simplify the encoding of and operations on information generated by a world based on one or the other organizing principle.

Are there ecstatic pessimists? Are there depressed optimists? I think the latter is more common. Kierkegaard, the poster-boy of pessimism, was actually more of a sadly disappointed realist, and had optimism at his core.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:40 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Would an example of pessimistic optimism be in applying for Blizzard and not really expecting a call-back? I'm totally going through this right now.

You send your resume to hundreds of people and you never hear back, it's disheartening. At least with game companies I can impress my friends with "I applied to motherfucking Blizzard because I am a badass like that" but they get so many applications I don't think it'll matter. I also have no company contacts, which is also working against me.

In the end, it takes a lot just to get out of bed and face the world, as long as you can accept that it will hurt things usually work out.
posted by hellojed at 10:46 PM on April 15, 2010


a pessimist would be more likely to work to change things than an optimist; the optimist need not exert him- or herself since things are so very likely to go well anyway, while the pessimist thinks that things probably won't go well, and so tries to rectify that.

After untold generations spent living on a barren iceberg, eating blubber and wearing seal skins, who do you think is more like to believe that a better land exists over the horizon, and head off into the sunset riding an inflated walrus bladder?
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:48 PM on April 15, 2010


"realism" is not an outlook, it's a boast.
posted by Kirk Grim at 10:49 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Albert Camus suggests that suicide is the most important philosophical question: why do we continue to live? What are we living for? To answer this question is to already overlook another fact: that life is intrinsically worth living or enduring. But is life, by itself, worth anything?
This is confusing. On the one hand life is worth living, but on the other hand it may not be?

Anyway, I agree with Silenus that existence is inferior to non-existence. The so-called pessimism presented in this essay has too much to do with notions about "progress" or the lack thereof and too little to do with explaining the absolute crumminess of life. The final paragraph in particular is pure fluff: pessimism is suddenly reduced to self-help ("we can grow simply from encountering its claims") and common sense ("if we want change in the world and in ourselves, we need to engage with the truth of existence not indulge in the appeasement of fears").

The author also fails to mention that Schopenhauer actually presented a solution to the problem of existence: he suggested that people stop procreating.
posted by Syme at 11:20 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are two types of people in this world : those who tell themselves comforting lies, and those who can't. The former are lucky, the latter are pessimists.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:30 PM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can plan for the worst and still be an optimist. I'm pretty optimistic, but I like to plan for the worst while being hopeful I won't need it. You can do both, you know.
posted by Jilder at 12:32 AM on April 16, 2010


An optimist is a man who looks after your eyes, and a pessimist is a man who looks after your feet. - Chesterton.
posted by crocomancer at 4:39 AM on April 16, 2010


After untold generations spent living on a barren iceberg, eating blubber and wearing seal skins, who do you think is more like to believe that a better land exists over the horizon, and head off into the sunset riding an inflated walrus bladder?
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:48 AM


You assume that the Inuit had no aggressive southern neighbors. Your imaginary bladder-rider was probably happier and more well informed of his situation in his environment than you give him credit for.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:13 AM on April 16, 2010


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.

You're probably sitting in a building right now, in between driving or riding in high speed vehicles, all of which are built with expensive materials that are squashed and stretched in complicated ways by the weights and forces applied to them. At some point, for every such design that your life depends on, engineers calculated what the worst case scenario was going to be when those weights and forces were applied, to make sure that the squashed materials wouldn't buckle and that the stretched ones wouldn't crack to the point of catastrophic failure.

And then, because those engineers were good pessimists, they multiplied those weights and forces by 2. Or 3, for some applications. Maybe 4. The idea behind this Safety Factor is that even if their worst-case scenario still wasn't pessimistic enough, you'd be safe anyway.

But like I said, those materials are expensive, and you probably don't need so much... perhaps you'd like to fly in a plane designed by optimists instead?
posted by roystgnr at 6:01 AM on April 16, 2010


Pessimism is a tool used by folks who think they're smarter than they are to justify their decision not to try to make the world better.


Wow, if even the pessimists think they're smarter than they really are how self-deluded must the optimists be.
posted by ecurtz at 9:52 AM on April 16, 2010


perhaps you'd like to fly in a plane designed by optimists instead?

You could just as well argue that the pessimist believes the plane will crash eventually anyway, and extra safety features are a waste of time. But of course that would be equally wrong.

Optimism / pessimism has nothing to do with action. Both will build a safe airplane if they are given responsible builders.

Optimism / pessimism has to do with outlook, with emotional response, and with choice. The glass is the same for either person (just as the airplane would be), but how someone chooses to respond, emotionally, to the state of the glass is the essence of outlook. There is great happiness and great sadness everywhere in the world, and whichever you choose to remind yourself of is what makes you optimistic or pessimistic. Sometimes that choice is not obvious, or feels unavailable, but it is always there.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 11:27 AM on April 16, 2010


Your imaginary bladder-rider was probably happier and more well informed

That was my point, that the optimist would take a bigger risk. Jumping off into a hostile environment for an imagined, or supposed, or rumored benifit -- you might lose quite few who never make it back. To the optimist, these guys are in the land of milk and honey, to the pessimist (and in reality) they're dead. Only the deluded optimists would keep trying, and eventually make the discovery.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:52 AM on April 16, 2010


A lot of the problem lies in the colloquialization of the words "pessimism" and "optimism" into personal psychological orientations rather than philosophies.

Cautious people (introverts, by an large) are labeled "pessimists" because they (and by they I mean we) can often see the big picture and anticipate problems. When a more impulsive, extroverted friend is about to charge off into some risky venture, we might say, "well, what if this happens?" and get accused of raining on their parade and being negative.

But I don't think I'm a negative person just because I may be a pessimist in the philosophical sense. I think my tendency to see life several moves ahead helps me to make sensible decisions. For example, during the housing boom everyone kept telling me to buy a home on stated income with an I.O. mortgage and an ARM. I just had a feeling the boom was too good to be true and that as a self-employed person, the worst-case scenario was that my income level wouldn't stay high. I thought the most positive scenario for me was to keep renting and was optimistic that I wouldn't regret it. And I haven't. Buying would have been terrible for me.

Another example is that when a close friend was struggling with an addiction, I remained optimistic that they could get clean, but at the same time I was able to see possible triggers down the road that they weren't able to see. I emotionally supported my friend and gave some warnings, but I never felt pessimistic in the sense of "once an addict, always an addict" (which is actually more linked with 12 Step/New Age thinking).

In both of these cases a balance of optimism and pessimism was required. I'm certainly not always as successful in balancing the two but I'm optimistic about the fact that pessimism can be useful.

The article seems to be to be another example of our culture creating a false dichotomy. Eastern cultures are thousands of years ahead of us with regard to recognizing that life is suffering and that engaged compassion, not nihilism, is an appropriate response.
posted by xenophile at 12:19 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was my point, that the optimist would take a bigger risk.

Oh. I get you.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:13 PM on April 16, 2010


« Older The Obama and Biden tax returns are already on lin...  |  English-speaking fans of lucha... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments