WHO’S MORAYMINT?


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[1].

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[2] 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?’[3]”  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”.


[1].   ‘The Surprising Power of Optimistic Pessimism’, Dr Jeffrey Rossman, Director, Canyon Ranch, Lennox, Massachusetts.

[2].    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.

[3].   Seneca on ‘Festivals and Fasting’ Letters XVIII.

9 comments

  1. I tend to regard you as a realist Moray, pessimists are people I personally avoid and come what may we still need to remain positive.

    Just slightly worried about the books you keep recommending having spent 3 hours one evening last week munching my way through Tim Morgan’s “perfect storm” report along with the website posts often reading the detail and data twice in order to fully understand the great writers assessment.

    Can we believe or trust the media? no, I don’t think we can and most mainstream political and economic journalists write in a way that keep us guessing or confused, at least for Clapham omni-types like myself, hence the power of the blogger as we attempt to seek out realism.

    Good to see you back in the DT and some great work here on the essay too, your balanced and reasoned posts I enjoy and read with enthusiasm and sorry it got a little messy for you a while back, there’s still more of that to come I’m afraid, not that I’m a pessimist.

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Thanks swgm; stay in touch.

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  2. Doya ever read george ure at urban survival? A kindred spirit for Jonah’s the world over. Lighten up fer eggs sake watch some Marx bros . Nobody gets out a this sucker cept in a box. Live long n prosper

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Gordon, you’re right of course! I love life. I love my wife. I love my “kids” (they’re not anymore). I love my pals. I love the place I live. I love the things I do. I love walking my dogs. I love laughing at stand-up. I love jazz. I love Edinburgh. I love my Regimental family. I could go on. I’m just keen to ensure that my children in particular embrace the inevitable ups and downs of the future with their eyes wide open. It’s no more sophisticated than that. The tricky bit is that the 30 years of my life from when I was 25 to the age of 55 that I am now was a cinch; easy peasy. The next 30 years for my “kids” (now 18 and 24 years respectively) are going to be tough; real tough. I want to help them (a) understand how the world is likely to shape up and (b) shape their own lives accordingly. I accept totally that I could be misreading the runes here, but in and of itself that won’t undermine what I have to say on this blog. These are just thoughts and ideas for my children to consider, along with everything else that can and will shape their own takes on the world. Stay in touch.

      PS Love the Marx Bros by the way. And Tommy Cooper. And Victor Meldrew (no surprise there, eh?).

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  3. PrestonPark · ·

    The other thing to be said for the various species of pessimists is that you’re quite often proved wrong & things go better than planned for (or defended against!). The irony, oddly, is that the optimist can get disappointed more often than the pessimist. To the positive pessimist any small victory is a cause for joyousness, whereas the optimist encountering a reversal may be sent scurrying to the nearest You’re-a-Winner-damnit!! type self-help book.

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  4. MacBandy · ·

    THE WISDOM OF INSECURITY

    Morning MM; enjoying reading you over my Saturday morning coffee and for once I am going to agree:

    I deliberately strive to find the positive in events precisely because I know I am a hardwired defensive pessimist (from the same professional incubator as you) who needs to challenge his default perspective. I often feel that those who express the self-help positive mantra may have been halfway optimists anyway! I have no doubt that ‘energy flows where the focus goes’ but the truth, of course, falls between the two extreme. As you say…..

    “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”…..

    Now… on reading Seligman (and other such books) I have no doubt that they can help one change ones perspective on many things but that once you are of a certain age (Note 1) you are who you are and all else is tips and techniques in dealing with it. I am confident that by adhering to these we can challenge our internal dialogue and, over a lifetime, may engender some degree of change but am very wary of a ‘road to Damascus’ paradigm shift (either psychological or spiritual) which I fear may be more likely to be self- delusion.

    Many religious practices (Bible study, regular worship, prayer groups, mantra like praying) have much in common with positive psychology exercises; block out one narrative (the ‘bad’ one) and replace it with ‘our’ new narrative (the ‘good’ one). Not that I decry these exercises or any religion. I am not an atheist like yourself but a satisfied agnostic who has finished his looking and feels that if there is a God he/she does not intend me to find him/her and that he is OK with that. Not for me the absolutism and fear-mongering of established religion! As Bill the bard said “Nothing is good nor bad but thinking makes it so”.

    But we can gain from this field of thought. Seligman himself points to work of Marvin Levine and in particular ‘The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga’. He ties Eastern philosophy (atheist, not mystical or religious) and Western positive psychology (positivist as in scientific method not new age spirituality) together. Both he and Seligman offer no mystical claims to their work but instead illustrate that we can change the way we think through hard work and practice.

    Alan Watts, on the other hand, makes it easy! This ex Anglican Priest turned beatnic-zen-hippy translates Buddhism and Vedic philosophy to Western metaphysics and (and this will interest you MM) 20th Century quantum physics! We know not if he had any ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ system. He refused to be categorised. He was all about just looking and being….maaan!

    I commend to you his short book ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’. You will find it tagged as ‘spirituality’ because we humans have to label things; it is not. If you can’t wait for Amazon to deliver to Moray check him out on ‘A conversation with myself’ on you tube.

    Watts said something like…pain is only painful when we are trying to remove ourselves from it! Or as my kids might say….Chillax!

    Note 1: If my memory serves me Bradbury and Greaves, eminent practitioners in Emotional Intelligence, say late twenties.

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    1. MacBandy · ·

      …..All that and not one mention of Postmodern Relativism. I must be getting better!

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  5. I like your analysis, Moraymint, and I will also put up my hand as being a defensive pessimist. Having also been in the armed services, albeit a long time ago, I can completely empathise with your description of military planning. In planning for the worst, military leaders spend a lot of time and effort in examining all possible contingencies, so that there are no surprises. Risk assessment in project management is another example of this planning process. My concern is that optimists either don’t realise or don’t accept that things can go wrong, they don’t adequately assess the risks, and therefore they don’t consider the contingencies and plan for what MAY go wrong. Doesn’t this sound familiar when considering recent economic events? Keep the thoughts coming!

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Thanks Andy and, yes, one of the (many) themes of this blog over the coming year will be in relation to how our propensity to ‘always look on the bright side of life’ (nothing wrong with that per se) can mask a pressing need to face reality. There’s also a huge PR or propaganda element to how governments (and corporations) behave when the future starts to look less than rosy. Stay tuned …

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