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Everyday Philosophy: The contrasting merits of pessimism and optimism

Introducing a new weekly column by Nigel Warburton, one of the world’s most-read philosophers.

The close finish of the Men's 4 x 100m relay final at the Tokyo Olympics. Optimism helps drive Olympic success. Photograph: 2021 Getty Images.

These are dark days. The Delta strain of Covid-19 is spreading rapidly, and other, even more dangerous forms of the virus are probably mutating. There are unmistakeable signs of global warming from thawing permafrost to more frequent and more damaging fires, floods, and storms. The recent fires in parts of Athens are just one example.

As huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest are destroyed, factories pour out toxic smoke. And now there are signs that the Gulf Stream may be shutting down. Meanwhile, politicians encourage us to forego rinsing plates before we put them in the dishwasher, as if that will solve the climate crisis. Authoritarian governments are using digital technology to spy on and control their enemies. Inequality is increasing. Journalists are being imprisoned and tortured. Children are starving. And then there’s Afghanistan.

I could go on. If you read the news it is very hard to be optimistic, but still, somewhat incongruously, many of us are. We may be pessimistic about how things will go for the world in general, but we still believe we’ll personally be OK.

In fact, as the cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot has pointed out, a majority of us have a bias that makes us unrealistically optimistic about how things will go for us. We systematically mis-predict what will happen in our lives. Unless you suffer from mild depression, chances are you will believe that good things are just around the corner for you. Those with mild depression are more realistic than this, and less prone to this sort of wishful thinking: they predict their futures more accurately. Those with severe depression, however, are unrealistically pessimistic about what will transpire.

There may be good evolutionary reasons for having this optimism bias. First, it reduces stress and anxiety, and as we know stress can be debilitating and dangerous, so optimism helps us cope. It’s better for us if we don’t expect the worst, even if that’s the likeliest outcome. But, also, almost paradoxically, unrealistic optimism may be a prerequisite for some kinds of achievement. Had scientists been pessimistic about the chances of developing vaccines fast enough to combat Covid-19, for example, then perhaps they would never have found the motivation to do the concentrated research that made that happen so quickly and unexpectedly and with such good results.

If most athletes weren’t unrealistically optimistic about their chances of success, they’d never put in the training hours that result in a lucky few of them reaching the Olympics. For every gold medal winner, there are many thousands optimistically striving to get on the podium, and in some cases believing they will, despite there being the slimmest of chances that that will actually happen. It’s very hard to predict precisely who will succeed, though it is clear that the majority won’t.

Most great philosophers have been pessimists of one kind or another (or realists as they would see it) though not generally as pessimistic as Arthur Schopenhauer who thought that it would have been better not to have been born at all. Perhaps good philosophers are all a little depressed: maybe that’s what draws them to the subject and makes them less content with what they would see as illusory optimism. An optimistic philosopher will come across as foolish and naïve, like Voltaire’s Candide who resolutely believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds despite the contrary evidence in front of him. We don’t speak of ‘naïve pessimists’ do we? Religious philosophers are an exception to the pessimistic trend, though, since they typically hope for a better world beyond this one, think God will intervene to stop the worst from happening, or have faith that there is a benevolent plan behind all the terrible events that occur.

So, assuming you have the choice, should you be a pessimistic philosopher or an optimistic wishful thinker? If you want the bleak truth about what your future will very probably be like, go with being a pessimistic philosopher. But if you want to get things done, prevent things turning out too badly, and increase your level of happiness, don’t stare into the abyss too long – be an optimist, live a life which may turn out to have been based on illusion, and hope for the best.

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