If you’re not in the least interested in who I am, or how I think then please feel free to ignore this post altogether; no hard feelings; see you at the next post, hopefully. This post is one of the essays specifically aimed at my children; just in case they’re wondering who on earth is Dad Moraymint? If this post is of any interest at all to the casual reader, or Moraymint follower, it will be of interest to those who think (worry?) that they are, or might be pessimists; or who get a little cheesed off at the relentless assaults from the positive psychology brigade.
One of the many ways in which we pigeonhole each other is as optimists or pessimists. The received wisdom is optimism, good; pessimism, bad. If you’ll forgive for a moment the hackneyed phrase ‘studies show’, then we’re told studies show that, compared to pessimists, optimists do better at school, sports and work; optimists suffer less depression, achieve more goals, respond better to stress and wage more effective battles against illness; optimists face problems head on; optimists view defeat as a temporary setback usually due to some external factor and certainly not as their fault; optimists are resilient; optimists are more likely to be elected to high office; optimists age well and – dammit – some ‘studies show’ that optimists even have better sex lives and live longer.
Now, the problem – for me anyway – is that I’m a pessimist. Well, it’s a problem if you accept that to be anything other than an optimist is to have some sort of personality disorder. Incidentally, when I say that I’m a pessimist I don’t mean that I’m a raging, opposite-of-all-the-above-characteristics, we’re-all-doomed type of pessimist (albeit my family might feel that they have grounds to argue otherwise from time to time), but I do know that I’m definitely not a card-carrying optimist. Should I care? Should I spend time trying to ‘learn optimism’, as received wisdom would have us believe. Indeed, one of the best selling books of the genre is ‘Learned Optimism’ by Professor Martin Seligman, a book said to be “a system for reforming the most entrenched pessimist”. I treat books like this with a certain degree of scepticism, tending to think of them as the tyranny of positive psychology.
So, my preference is to read and digest ‘Learned Optimism’ (which I’ve done); and then to read and digest ‘The Positive Power of Negative Thinking’ by Professor Julie K Norem (which I’ve also done). Indeed, I’ve also read Professor Roger Scruton’s ‘The Uses of Pessimism and the Dangers of False Hope’. The end result for me is not to get too carried away with this notion of optimism, good; pessimism, bad. Nor to accept the proposition that the situation is so black or white that one is either a pessimist, or an optimist and neither the twain shall meet. You are who you are. The trick is to know who you are and deal with it accordingly.
Why this particular theme in my letter to my children? Well, because over the years that I’ve been observing, analysing and commenting on unfolding economic and political events – and concluding that we’re almost certainly living at the leading edge of profound if not unprecedented socio-economic change – I’m often told that our circumstances are not really that bad at all; I’m then advised that the real issue is that I’m simply being too pessimistic. The implication of course is that if I was an optimist I’d be unlikely to draw the conclusions that I do; I would realise that things weren’t so bad after all and that, in the words of Mr Micawber (the eternal optimist), something will turn up.
A note of caution here by the way: to be Panglossian, which is to be blindly or naively optimistic, is probably as bad as being a ‘dispositional pessimist’. A dispositional pessimist is someone who is globally pessimistic to the extent that they tend to believe that when bad things happen, it was their fault, it will lead to other bad things happening to them, and bad things will keep happening to them forever. In other words, they believe that bad outcomes are personal, pervasive, and permanent. Not surprisingly, chronic dispositional pessimism has been found to lead to hopelessness, helplessness, withdrawal, and depression. I’m not a dispositional pessimist.
As far as I can tell I’m a ‘defensive pessimist’: I’m comfortable declaring this because I’ve done a few personality tests in my time (formal and informal) that consistently show this character trait. The simplest definition of a defensive pessimist is someone who tends to anticipate a negative outcome and then takes steps to avoid that outcome. Some defensive pessimists like to consider themselves more as ‘positive realists’ according to Lord Lawson, as I recall from an interview he once gave. Indeed, Stoic philosophy argues that sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario, but the worst. Interestingly, studies show (there it is again) that if an optimist were to adopt this strategy it would increase his anxiety rather than reduce it.
The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca once said that if you feared losing your wealth “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’” Strangely enough, my equivalent to this philosophical theme is the Dutch Barge, much to the exasperation of Mrs Moraymint. There are days when I contemplate, in some detail frankly, adjusting the whole of my existence down to that which could be contained within a Dutch Barge or, dare I say, narrowboat. I take some comfort from the knowledge that if push came to shove (ie if things got really bad on the economic front) I could live perfectly happily under such circumstances. This is just the ‘defensive pessimist’ at work. To be fair, Mrs Moraymint remains to be convinced that the existing Castle Moraymint could reasonably transmogrify in to HMS Moraymint; from which I take it that Mrs Moraymint is more optimistic than me.
Incidentally, there’s some connection here in relation to my first career: I served for 20 years in the armed forces, in an infantry regiment. Now, the armed forces have an institutional propensity for worst-case planning. Military doctrine at all levels is about analysing everything that could go wrong and preparing yourself and the resources at your disposal for if/when things do go wrong. Indeed, in my experience, things going wrong just about sums up military operations once battle is joined; known in the military vernacular as SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up). I loved every minute of my 20 years in the military and, if I may be immodest for a moment to make my point, had been trained – at the Army Staff College – for the ‘highest command and staff appointments’. I left the military for sound personal reasons (put simply I wanted to settle my children in one, beautiful place and have them grow up there), but the thing is this: there’s nothing bad, inhibiting or wrong with being a ‘defensive pessimist’.
Probably I wouldn’t be writing this essay at all if events had not started to unfold as they did from about 2006. It was then that I read ‘The Long Emergency’ which presaged the global financial crisis that started to unfold in 2007. The irony is that some people have argued persuasively that the positive psychology bandwagon, with its rejection of the possibility of failure, helped bring on the global financial crisis in the first place. Here’s Professor Scruton on the subject:
“The Community Reinvestment Act [was] signed in to law by … President Carter in 1977. This required banks and other lenders to offer mortgages in a way which addressed the credit needs of the communities in which they worked, and in particular the needs of low-income and minority households. In short, it required them to set aside the normal reasoning of lenders concerning the security of a debt, and to offer credit as part of social policy and not as a business deal. The reasoning behind the Act was an impeccable piece of optimism, beginning from the best-case scenario, according to which otherwise disadvantaged groups would be lifted in to the realm of home-ownership, so taking their first step towards the American dream. Everyone would benefit from this, and no-one more than the banks who had helped their communities to flourish. In the event, of course, the banks who had been pressured into ignoring the old demands of prudence, and who had been forbidden by law to consult the worst-case scenario, ended up with a steadily growing accumulation of bad debts, leading eventually to the ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis’ of 2008.”
So, the global financial crisis – arguably founded in legally enforced optimism – is now giving us ‘defensive pessimists’ a bit of a field day.
I’ve just looked again at one of my ‘Insights’ reports in which it says that whilst Moraymint is “outwardly quiet, reserved and detached, inwardly he is constantly absorbed in analysing problems or situations.” However, the challenge for me now is to live up to another observation from the same report, namely that Moraymint has “common-sense denoting a practical ability with people and things.” Mrs Moraymint is quite rightly expecting me to do great things with the chicken run and the raised seedbeds this year; I’m going to live up to her expectations … and I’m not anticipating all the things that might go wrong; that’s the optimist in me.
Finally, a couple of thoughts to end with: the optimist invented the aeroplane; the pessimist invented the parachute. And it was the Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist George Will who once said, “The nice thing about being a pessimist is that you are either constantly being proved right, or pleasantly surprised”.
. ‘The Surprising Power of Optimistic Pessimism’, Dr Jeffrey Rossman, Director, Canyon Ranch, Lennox, Massachusetts.
. One of the best personality tests that I’ve come across (and been subjected to on no less than 3 occasions by different employers) is the ‘Insights’ test which is offered by Insights Learning & Development Ltd, Dundee.
. Seneca on ‘Festivals and Fasting’ Letters XVIII.