Is Pessimism A Bad Thing?

waterglassI recently had a conversation with my boss’s boss at the end of which he said I had a really positive attitude.  I laughed and indicated that in general I’m considered a pessimist at work.  He paused and said he was also a pessimist and we sort of got into a small discussion on pessimism, optimism, realism, pragmatism, and nihilism.

It struck me in this conversation that pessimism is not a negative thing.

Is the glass half full or half empty?

When I indicate that a glass is half empty, I am actively acknowledging the full potential of the glass.  A pessimist will look at situations and see how they could be better.  A pessimist can see the potential for improvement.  A nihilist will indicate that no improvement can be made.  Sort of a ‘the glass is half empty and cracked and the water is tainted’ belief.  An optimist sees the glass as half full, which implies that the amount of water in the glass is ‘good enough’.   It is an Apollonian view of the world that doesn’t push the envelope of expectation.

A realist sees that the glass contains water and the pragmatist will only see the amount of water in terms of ‘enough to quench thirst or not’ not caring about the actual potential volume of the glass since it is irrelevant to the purpose at hand.  Obviously the pragmatist is the best point of view to have, but my middle of the night ramble is a defense of the pessimist so I’ll ignore the pragmatic position.

When you want to improve the world, isn’t someone who sees the problems and potential problems someone who is going to be more capable of making an improvement versus someone who sees that the world is ‘fine’ the way it is?

Of course I can’t help but think of the song from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog where Dr. Horrible and Penny sing together… he sees the world as falling apart and she sees the world as coming together.  I would argue he is a nihilist.  In his mind, the world is a mess and the only reasonable (reasonable in his twisted world view) solution is for him to seize control of it.  Penny is a blind optimist who can’t see the negatives and thus gets in bed (literally) with Captain Hammer which leads to her inevitable demise at the hands of Dr. Horrible.

There’s a lesson in there, I swear.

At the heart of this ramble is to indicate that just because someone sees the glass as half empty doesn’t mean they think the glass is failing, that the world is in chaos and anarchy.  That person could be merely commenting on the potential of the glass to hold more water.  A pragmatic pessimist might be able to discern if the amount of water is enough to quench thirst while also making the observation that the glass has a greater potential to hold more water.

I take it back, that thing I said about pragmatism being the better point of view.  Pragmatic pessimism is where it is at.