The Power of Negative Thinking

Pessimistic by nature? Make the most of a 'realistic' outlook without bringing everybody down.

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If there’s one thing happy, successful people always seem to have in common, it’s an uncanny ability to believe in the light, even when they’re standing in a black hole with not so much as a glimmer in sight.

We all know the type. They consistently focus on the pros, not the cons; the solutions, not the problems; what they can control, not what they can’t. They are positive thinkers, and their positive results just seem to multiply upon themselves, right? Right.

But what if you’re just not the chipper glass-half-full type? What if, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t shift your focus from the cons, the problems, and all that you can’t control in life? Suppose you like yourself — and your ever-present clouds of gloom — just the way you are? You’re doomed to failure and misery, right? Wrong! In fact, quite the opposite is true if you recognize your disposition and manage it accordingly.

Many pessimists lead happy, highly successful lives, according to Julie K. Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak (Basic Books, $25). But they don’t allow themselves to wallow in their predisposition toward the negative. They use it as part of an actual strategy to affect desirable results in their lives. The strategy is called defensive pessimism.

Defensive pessimists live in a perpetual state of general anxiety that features a never-ending parade of irritating what-ifs. What if I get laid off? What if my boss hates my presentation? What if the rain causes my house to flood? But they don’t let any of those nagging concerns get in the way of their goals. Instead, they use all of that negative energy to help ensure positive outcomes.

Defensive pessimists always have a plan B, and maybe even a C and D. They keep their résumés current and nurture strong ties to headhunters just in case they do get laid off. They go the extra mile to produce a top-notch presentation and carry flood insurance on their homes, just in case. At times, they may even have an edge over the optimistic competition.

For example, you wake up and it’s partly cloudy. The weather report is good, but you can’t shake the feeling that it’s going to rain, so you carry an umbrella to work. It’s sunny all day until it’s time to head home and suddenly, it clouds over and pours. You — the defensive pessimist — are prepared. (Those optimists are scrambling for cover.)

It’s a simple example, but it’s evidence enough that the strategic application of pessimism can have far-reaching implications for sunny outcomes in the lives and careers of those who come by it naturally. According to Norem, defensive pessimists don’t do as well when they deny their true nature. In experiments Norem conducted, defensive pessimists didn’t perform as well when they employed relaxation or positive thinking techniques. Like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, it just didn’t work.

However, she warns, defensive

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