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Monday, October 15, 2018

The Eeyore Theory

Question: What’s the definition of a pessimist? Answer: A pessimist is a well-informed optimist. Or as James Branch Cabell said, “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”

A couple of years ago, the research firm surveyed people on the question, “Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?” Surprisingly, only 4% of respondents lined up with pessimists. Some 50% went with optimist. And 43% claimed to be somewhere in between.

Another way to consider your life outlook is to think of whether your glass is half full or half empty. The first traceable use of that phrase is found in a 1933 LA Times article. “Two men were looking at a bottle of milk. Said one with a groan, ‘The bottle is half empty.’ Said the other with a grin, ‘The bottle is half full.’ The first belonged to the courters of disasters, forever bemoaning their losses; the second to the invincibles who win by counting their blessings.”

Then there is the way Justice Brett Kavanaugh described his life perspective in his opening statement in the recent confirmation hearing. “I am an optimistic guy. I always try to be on the sunrise side of the mountain, to be optimistic about the day that is coming, but today, I have to say that I fear for the future.” I’m sure he had many days where pessimism was trying to take hold.

What about Eeyore—the friend of Winnie-the-Pooh? The old, grey, stuffed donkey definitely has an attitude problem. He is the poster critter for pessimism.

I mostly fall in the camp of the optimists. When I take on a project, I expect it to succeed. I wake up anticipating my 401K will improve. I’m usually up before sunrise so I can anticipate that side of the mountain.

But that may change. A 2013 Psychology Today article indicates that age can impact how we view the future. Young adults are usually overly optimistic—especially about the future. Research shows older adults usually become more realistic. As we age, we tend to become less optimistic about the future. Increasing fears of declining health or reduced economic opportunities can turn to pessimism.

In the workplace, are optimists or pessimists more productive? Note these study results quoted by “Research from New York University’s Gabriele Oettingen discovered that a little pessimism can improve productivity. Oettingen, who spent 20 years researching and testing her theory, found that optimism…didn’t help people reach their goals but instead got in the way.”

This was supported in an article from Fast Company titled, “This is how to harness your pessimism as a force for good.” The author is Art Markman, PhD, a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas. He writes that research on goal achievement advocates that specific plans are needed if you want to succeed. The pessimist might immediately be thinking of the things that could go wrong. Good! Use this thinking in helping to determine what steps are needed to deal with these negative possibilities. But don’t use the problems as an excuse. And don’t give up too quickly.

The Apostle Paul can give each of us a lesson in looking to the sunrise side of the mountain in spite of life’s difficulties. He wrote, “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea…I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers…I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” (2 Corinthians 11:25-27, NLT)

And yet, this bold evangelist would later write, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13–14, ESV)

If today you find yourself in the rut of pessimism, claw your way back out. Work on solutions. Seek advice. Build on short term successes.

And stay away from Eeyores.

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