Why we are pessimistic transcript
Today’s stren, explains why we are biased to think negatively and what we can do about it. We are by nature’s design prone to distort events towards pessimism. There is no corresponding inherited tendency to think optimistically. The earliest function of conscious awareness (consciousness) in animals and humans is to anticipate what we need and avoid danger. Our biology is ever ready to release emergency chemicals to set into action our defense from harm, and our primitive, innate way of thinking has been preprogrammed with what we call the “fight or flight” response. All life is powerfully driven to repeat the life cycle; failure to excel leads to extinction. Humankind is among the estimated 2-3% of species that prevailed.
The concerns of early thoughts are generally physical, such as food, warmth, and other biological needs that provide for our life and safety. These innate patterns for self-preservation direct us to focus on “the empty part of the glass.” Worry, anticipating the worst, is natural because it has survival value. We preoccupy ourselves with thoughts about aggressors that may cause harm. We are prone to get stuck in such negative thinking. Animals are not known for laughter and I have read that primitive humankind did not laugh at all. In evolution, humor is a relatively recent human invention that many contemporaries still scarcely engage in. Ditto for optimism. How often have you heard someone say “I’ve spent the night worrying” (anticipating the worst) as compared to “I spent the night optimizing” (anticipating the best)?
In addition, and perhaps more important, we are taught to be “civilized” and curb physical aggression (“you shouldn’t fight”) by becoming mentally aggressive. We acquire skill in blaming, dominating, winning, being “right,” competing, wanting, and surviving using mental means. We are expected to “succeed” at a high level. When we don’t meet the expectations of others, or fail to be as good or nice as we “should,” we attack ourselves quite skillfully. This human invention is called “guilt.” In my observation, we commonly become “our own worst enemy.” We demean and criticize ourselves. We engage in self-putdowns like no other creature. We attack ourselves with words and thoughts, make ourselves depressed, and may even physically attack ourselves. In the extreme, we call this “murdering oneself” or suicide. Perfectionists tend to make themselves especially miserable using advanced skills in self-blame. The results are anxiety, worry, depression, apathy, and related attributes of a difficult life experience.
For these reasons, we are wise to teach our self the skill of calling forth both positive thinking and positive feelings, or self-endorsement (see earlier strens ). The highest level of our adult brain (the cortex) is sufficiently complex and sophisticated that we can attain a level of joy and well-being not available to other creatures. We need not remain dominated by our innate, automatic pessimism and the acquired thinking patterns of blaming others and ourselves. We are capable of developing our own personal, creative, problem-solving action patterns. Through role modeling and human creativity, most people reading this stren (you included) have already gone beyond attending to their (your) immediate physical needs.
Mature human consciousness need not continue to be dominated by our physical needs and our innate programming. Rather than being limited to focusing on the immediate moment, we can use language to scan past, present, and future time. We deal with reality through mental rehearsal (i.e. thinking). Our intelligent human consciousness can readily be taught and we can teach ourselves to recognize past positive accomplishments, present achievements and acquisitions, and goals yet to come. We can generate appreciation and positive feelings. The ability to keep the positive in focus and not to simply dwell on the negative, on what is missing in our life, is a basic skill for maintaining positive feelings. To make misery, simply dwell on what you have lost, don’t have now, or may not get. Teach yourself to focus on what you have achieved, have now, and can yet accomplish. Wow! That is the wise choice available to each of us.
Self-endorsement is the process by which we teach our self to become our own best friend. We are wise to correct our natural bias to dwell on what is missing. We can control our distortion of reality that creates pessimism. Our primitive thinking has limited capacity to dwell on what we’ve accomplished, what we have now, or what we can attain in the future. Self-appreciation, gratitude, optimism, enthusiasm, and love are skills some of us have been fortunate enough to have been taught by our nurturers. More productively, we may now teach our self.
In sum, worry and negative anticipation are strongly biological. To what nature provides, we soon add skill in habitually directing aggression inward, in blaming, guilting, and demeaning ourselves. Self-endorsement will remain in its natural feeble state until we nourish it to dominance. Too often, the conversation we engage in within is our major source of unhappiness. The characters that carry on a dialogue within our thoughts and thinking will remain poor lifetime traveling companions unless we develop the skill of self-endorsement.
Our efforts to elevate ourselves, humanity, and civilization are among the best investments we can make. Can you think of a more worthy mission and meaningful purpose for our existence? We are most effective when we combine intellectual “knowing” endorsement and emotional “feeling” endorsement skills. Together, they work great.