The seven hidden upsides of negative thinking

We’re often advised to stay positive.  To keep our chin up when adversity strikes.  There are many books and quotes telling us that being optimistic is the answer to all our problems.  ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do’, for example.  ‘Nothing is impossible and impossible is nothing’.  There is merit in what all these people say.  But are there any downsides to positive thinking? Surprisingly, there are several!  This article looks at some of the upsides of negative thinking.  Or let’s call them the positives of being negative.

Positive of Negative #1:  You feel less guilty

Being able to see good in adversity is great.  Both Stoicism and Buddhism give good reasons for doing so.  Yet, being an incurable optimist isn’t great.  For an optimist, if something goes wrong, they assume they haven’t tried hard enough.  That failure is their fault.  And if they keep smiling and try again, they will see success.  Yet, that could be faulty thinking.  As Stoicism says, there are only two things in this world that we have control over.  Our thoughts and our actions.  Everything else is dependent on the world around us and hence uncontrollable.  Being negative stops us from blaming ourselves for the uncontrollable.  And allows for a rational and guilt-free way forward. 

Positive of Negative #2:  You get pleasant surprises

‘Keep telling yourself that everything will work out’.  That’s common advice during adversity.  Yet, following the advice is bad preparation for the times when things don’t work out. And there are always times when things don’t work out. Married couples who see a rosier future together are likelier to have issues, as per studies. All smokers are optimistic that they won’t contract cancer or a smoking related disease. Such irrational optimism often results in disappointment.

Instead, be negative and get pleasant surprises. Do you remember the class topper before exams? Always appearing concerned and downplaying their level of preparation. This ‘anxiety’ doesn’t allow complacency and makes them continue preparation. Negative thinking can transform anxiety into action. And makes one pleasantly surprised with positive results.

Positive of Negative #3: You’re more helpful (and cheerful)

When we have a negative mindset, we’re more helpful.  Sounds counter-intuitive? Well, the logic is that when we’re positive, our confidence brims over. And we go into a bubble which often blinds us from noticing where people could do with some help.  Our optimism and hope keep building a grander world for ourselves. So, we cling on to resources to make those dreams come true. Pessimism makes us dreamless or be more realistic. Like poorer people are likelier to help others, the pessimistic are more helpful.

Positive of Negative #4:  You’re Mr. (or Ms.) Courageous

It’s easier being courageous when there isn’t much to lose.  A fresh entrepreneur takes a multitude of risks; an established one often doesn’t.   Risk aversion is often the reason for company failure.  Pessimism reduces the risk aversion.  If you’re pessimistic, you know that you could lose it all in any case.  So, you have the courage to do something new. 

Positive of Negative #5: Survival rates increase

Bad, negative feelings are clues that we have a business issue or that something needs our attention.  If you’re overly optimistic, you will brush those negative feelings under the carpet.  Yet, there’s a strong survival value in negative thoughts.  Even the ‘positive psychologist’ Martin Seligman warned that optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity.”  We’re also more in touch with our emotions while being pessimistic. 

The biggest learning from the 2008 financial crisis is that an all-positive approach doesn’t work.  When we start rejecting the possibility of failure, we are doomed.  If more people were pessimistic about outcomes, we wouldn’t have had a financial crisis. 

Positive of Negative #6:  You procrastinate less

We often procrastinate when there’s something important to do. We link it to an inability to manage time. Yet, procrastination is more about managing emotions. Why’s that? Psychologists have proposed that we postpone work as a negative emotion avoidance strategy. Avoiding boredom, fear of inability to do the work or its difficult. So, we use procrastination to avoid those emotions. And fill the time with short-term mood lifters such as checking social media or watching a video.

Positive people are likelier to use short-term mood lifters and procrastinate. They don’t want to lose their ‘positivity’. They avoid negative emotions. In the longer term, that’s not good. People with a negative outlook are more used to and can tolerate negative emotions much better.

Positive of Negative #7: You live longer

Finally, if these 7 upsides aren’t good enough for you, here’s a bonus. Pessimism makes you live longer. Studies show that older people having lower expectations for a fulfilling future live longer. They also live a healthier life than those who see brighter days ahead.

Closing thoughts

This post is not advocating being a grouchy or grumpy person. A sour demeanour or ‘dispositional pessimism’ doesn’t help anybody. Instead, the post proposes that being optimistic all the time can hurt you.  Strive for a healthy balance between optimism and pessimism. As Richard Pine says, “The best chief executives know that too much optimism is a dangerous thing, that wise and productive leadership means striking a balance between optimists’ blue-sky view of the world and pessimists’ more clear-eyed assessment of any given situation.”

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