Pessimism and happiness

Pessimism tends to be looked down upon in today’s society, and it is thought that optimism is the way forward and the only outlook which will permit a certain kind of happiness. The image of pessimist would usually be thought of as somebody who is always in a bad mood, who does not appreciate the joys of life, and does not enjoy anything much at all. Although this may be a form of pessimism, not all pessimism is the same.

It is reasonable to say that, at certain times, we may all feel somewhat pessimistic: our job is not going well, we do not enjoy our hobbies as we much as we used to, and we seem to make so many mistakes that despair appears to be the only option. Optimism disdains and despises such thoughts, and always hopes for the best and is confident that the future will turn out to be what we hope it to be. Although this does, in theory, seem like a good option for pursuing happiness, in practice it does not, generally, turn out the same way.

Pessimists are unfairly discarded in today’s society and are looked upon only as barriers to success and satisfaction, yet this is not the case. Pessimism is not saying that we cannot be appreciative, joyful, or glad in moments of life. On the contrary, pessimism is letting us know that not everything will turn out the way we wish, that we will always make mistakes, and that by expecting the worst outcomes, things can only get better. Moreover, pessimists are well aware of the possibility of a sudden death, and the inevitability of everybody’s death, as well as a universal imperfection present in everyone. Being aware that one day, we will not be alive anymore can, even though it stems from a pessimistic thought, lead to greater appreciation of the pleasures of life, since we have become acutely aware of life’s limits and brevity. Similarly, awareness of flawed human nature can lead to compassion, a fundamental teaching of Arthur Schopenhauer, since we recognise that we are all very similar indeed, and that we all make mistakes and are fallible.

Pessimism recognises that life is not always going to be what we hoped for, and if we accept and embrace the tough parts of life, while realising that our lives are short and that we are all gradually dying (as Alain de Botton puts it), then perhaps we can get more out of life, and when the desirable parts of existence come upon us, we can experience them more fully and with greater appreciation. We may find that eventually, pessimism may lead us to a strange, unknown kind of happiness.

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