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The power of pessimism

Being overly-optimistic can lead to disaster. Convinced that the Titanic was unsinkable, Captain Edward J Smith ignored three warnings on April 15th 1912 that he was steaming straight into major ice-sheets.

Some 1517 people perished where a more pessimistic skipper might have taken a more southerly route to avoid the icebergs, or reduced speed (the ship was going almost flat out) to give himself room for manoeuvre.  If you catch yourself thinking that you are invulnerable, or even 'unsinkable', it's worth reflecting on the consequences if things go wrong. 'There's a narcissism that can go along with an extreme optimistic style,' Reivich warns.

Some people have such a positi explanatory style that they come to believe that they are indestructible. Their motto is 'it can?t happen to me'.  But if you climb cliffs without ropes, if you go wind-surfing without a life-jacket, if you have casual sex without using condoms, then you are taking inappropriate risks. If any of these activities go wrong, then the consequences won't be restricted to 'not me', 'not permanent', 'not everything' outcomes.

So if you have a pessimistic style, it's not as simple as just swapping the negative side of the continuum for the positive.  Instead, your goal should be to think outside the box of your explanatory style, broadening the array of information that you consider so that you're seeing situations as they really are with both flexibly and accurately. 

Most of us have encountered the blind optimist who is always expecting the silver lining to shine though, always blaming others for what goes wrong, always convinced that they can change anything for the better, airily dismissive of real-world negative consequences like bankruptcy, job loss, or relationship breakdown. 

'That brand of optimism does not facilitate problem solving, it interferes with it.  So optimism is a wonderful motivator but it needs to be wed to reality,' says Reivich.

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