Benjamin Franklin had something interesting to say about the nature of pessimism. “There are two sorts of people in the world,” he wrote, “who, with equal degrees of health and wealth, and the other comforts of life, become, the one happy, and the other miserable. This arises very much from the different view in which they consider things, persons, and events; and the effect of those different views upon their own minds.
“In whatever situation men can be placed, they may find conveniences and inconveniences; in whatever company, they may find persons and conversation more or less pleasing; at whatever table, they may meet with meats and drinks of better and worse taste, dishes better and worse dressed; in whatever climate, they will find good and bad weather; under whatever government, they may find good and bad laws, and good and bad administration of those laws; in whatever poem, or work of genius, they may see faults and beauties; in almost every face, and every person, they may discover fine features and defects, good and bad qualities.
“Under these circumstances, the two sorts of people above mentioned fix their attention; those who are disposed to be happy, on the convenience of things, the pleasant parts of conversation, the well-dressed dishes, the goodness of the wines, the fine weather, &c., and enjoy all with cheerfulness. Those who are to be unhappy think and speak only of the contraries. Hence they are continually discontented themselves, and, by their remarks, sour the pleasures of society, offend personally many people, and make themselves everywhere disagreeable.”
I personally find it easy to fall into the trap of seeing the gloomy side of things, at least in my own personal life. I believe it is very common for human beings to tend toward the negative, simply because discomfort is more noticeable than its lack. And it is actually reasonable that we should tend that way. After all, hunger is what drives us to find food. A pebble in our shoes, a pin prick from the new shirt we just put on—these are the things that drive us to correct a problem. Our very physical survival is dependent upon noticing what is out of place. So a certain degree of pessimism, if you will, is not a bad thing.
The problem for our day to day happiness comes only, as Franklin so eloquently puts it, if we learn to overgeneralize this survival trait. If we allow ourselves to become so critical that we fail to enjoy the pleasures that could be ours if only we could learn to overlook those things that don’t matter, we will succeed only in making ourselves miserable. We will not survive better; we will not improve our lives. Because the reality is, there is nothing in our lives that is perfect. In everything we can find a flaw. Is that really what we want, to notice all the flaws?
Pessimism and optimism are habits of mind. We can decide, if we think about it, to choose to more regularly notice the brighter side of things. Optimism is hard, not easy, even though it is the more realistic habit of mind. Most people, most of the time, have far less trouble than they have comfort. It’s just that pain is noisier than good times. Comfort speaks softly, touches lightly, and can be vanquished instantly.
We can choose to worry about the future, what might go wrong tomorrow. But most of the time, our worries never become reality and all we have managed to do is to sap the joy out of today. As someone said, “A pessimist is one who feels bad when he feels good for fear he'll feel worse when he feels better.”
One day I was at Disneyland and noticed a small child crying, complaining because her father would not buy her a cotton candy. Nearby, another child, who also did not have cotton candy, was laughing and skipping and pointing at Mickey Mouse. Both children were in Disneyland. One was choosing to notice what she had. The other chose to notice what she lacked. Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose”