Be Pessimistic and Perish

in Articles from our Newsletter

It’s easy to rationalize being a pessimist if you’re in academia.  The academic life offers all kinds of opportunities to experience failure and rejection.  Wouldn’t anyone be pessimistic?

Here are just a few of the discouraging, unpleasant, and disappointing situations that you may have run into:

  1. A paper is rejected by a journal, accompanied by harsh criticism
  2. You don’t get the job you hope for.  In fact, you don’t get an interview
  3. No one signs up for your experiment
  4. Your committee rejects your proposal
  5. You don’t get the fellowship

I could go on, but it would get too depressing.

The fact is that most successful academics know how to bounce back, persevere, and come out stronger, after having such experiences.  So how do you do that? One hint: you’ll do much better at this if you are an optimist.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt has an excellent chapter called “The Uses of Adversity.”  I will review a few of his suggestions, which can help you to re-adjust your point of view for the long term.  Then I will give you some quick tips for how to survive in the short term.

According to Haidt, research suggests that optimists cope better with adversity than do pessimists.  Don’t confuse optimism with being a “Pollyanna.”  Optimists can see possibilities where pessimists see none.  Optimists are better able to cope during times of crisis.  Perhaps their most important skill is being able to make sense out of a situation, no matter how negative.

Your Life Story

Haidt cites the research of Dan McAdams, a professor at Northwestern University, who has studied how we construct our own “life stories,” which serve both to interpret our past and predict our future.  The problem is that these stories are filtered through our subjective lenses and are not necessarily reflective of the truth.  The real problem, however, is that we believe these stories.

Here is the pessimist running her life story through her mind as she predicts the future and decides what action to take.

“I always had to try harder than others in school.  This paper being rejected and receiving harsh criticism means that I will never be able to publish in a decent journal.  I’ll just give up on writing and focus on teaching.”

One lesson that I think should be taken from McAdams’ research is that you must be clear that your interpretations of your past are just that: interpretations.  You must work hard to be conscious of the story you are telling yourself about what is happening to you.  Then you must be careful about how you predict your future, and how you make decisions about what to do next.

For example, here is the optimist, with the same life history as the pessimist, talking to herself about the article being rejected.

“I always tried harder than others in school, and that’s how I got such good grades in the field I love.  I’ve overcome other obstacles, and I’ll overcome this.  I’ll give myself a few days, and then I’ll make a list of the criticisms by the reviewers, and tackle them one at a time.  Then I’ll submit the article to the next journal on my list.”

Note that the pessimist used avoidance to cope, while the optimist adjusted her way of thinking and then found a way to solve the problem.  As Haidt says, “[Pessimists] work harder to manage their pain than to fix their problems, so their problems often get worse.”  See my previous newsletter on Pema Chodron for advice on how to face the pain instead of avoiding it.

How to Make Sense of it all

Another study mentioned by Haidt is by Professor Jamie Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin.  He found something remarkable.  People who shared an upsetting or traumatic experience with a support group were less likely to suffer health problems later than those who didn’t.  He later showed that subjects who wrote for 15 minutes a day about an “emotional upheaval” could get the same health benefits, as long as they worked to find a meaning behind what they had experienced.

I love this finding because it illustrates one reason why our coaching groups and writing clubs are so effective.  People share experiences, both good and bad, and then get help from others in making sense of them.

What kind of meaning could you look for when you suffer academic failures and rejection?  Here are some examples of ways to talk to yourself about these negative experiences:

  • “Even though the reviewers were harsh, their comments will help make this a better paper.”
  • “Not getting a job will allow me to work on building up my CV this year.”
  • “I’m learning a lot about how to recruit volunteers for a study.”
  • “It’s been painful working on this dissertation, but I know that once I survive this, I’ll be stronger.”

A Reason for Optimism

Haidt concludes his chapter by briefly touching on Robert J. Sternberg’s ideas on wisdom. He suggests that suffering through painful experiences actually helps us learn to cope better (if we handle it well), which then leads to wisdom.  I think the attainment of wisdom is a worthy goal in itself.

I like the following from Proust, which Haidt quotes in this chapter:

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

Three Anti-Pessimism Phrases

The following are phrases that you can use to challenge your tendency to believe the worse when faced with adversity.  They are from the book The Resilience Factor, by Reivich and Shatte.

  • “A more accurate way of seeing this is…”
  • “That’s not true because…”
  • “A more likely outcome is…and I can… to deal with it.”

Use these phrases to reword your negative thoughts, and start seeing how to turn an overly pessimistic, hopeless, avoidance-causing response into a point of view that leads to a good solution.

Practice being an optimist.  It will pay off.


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