The Pessimist’s Guide to Optimism


Welcome to the second column by Luke Benedictus, Founder and Content Director of the-father-hood.com, a platform and community designed to help dads survive and thrive. Luke has over two decades of experience in the media industry and was previously the editor of Men’s Health, a brand he spent over 10 years with.

In his series titled The Paradox of Choice, Luke explores men’s mental health, burnout, and how to manage the mental load by giving you actionable points and his own tried and tested advice to help dads reset and reframe in 2021. 

Deliberately avoiding stone-cold facts has never worked particularly well for me. Repeated attempts to ignore the size of my credit card debt or kid myself the traffic on Punt Road would merely be heinous instead of downright evil, invariably left me broker and later than ever. Reality is a tiresome business but some level of engagement is still necessary.

And that was my basic problem with optimists. To be a happy-clappy fantasist who refused to acknowledge the bitter truth of existence always seemed frankly irresponsible.  Life, after all, rarely involves picking flowers beneath rainbows while whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. It’s often grim, disappointing and very sad.

You don’t have to look far to find supporting evidence. From the looming climate change apocalypse to the baffling price of craft beer, there’s an awful lot to feel gloomy about.  Entreaties to not “sweat the small stuff” don’t really stack up either. After all, surely those little things are the jigsaw pieces that ultimately comprise the bigger picture? Some might see optimism as boldly defiant in such circumstances. I viewed it as wilfully deluded and betraying a grave lack of critical thinking.

That was until I discovered this was, in fact, a staggering act of self-sabotage. For a growing number of studies show that pessimism doesn’t just make you a real bore at parties, it’s bad for your body and mind.

Let’s start with the physical side-effects: pessimists die younger. In an in-depth study, the University of North Carolina tracked almost 7000 students over the course of 40 years. The findings were sobering for grumpy-trousered folk. The study revealed the most pessimistic individuals had a 42% higher rate of death than the most optimistic.

Plenty of other research has uncovered similar results. The American Journal of Human Genetics, for example, found that increased optimism improves your career prospects, strengthens relationships, protects against loneliness and boosts your sleep quality to boot.

Increasingly people also believe you can train your brain to view the world through a more optimistic lens. Psychologist Lewina Lee was the study author of another report that found pessimism was bad for longevity, but she believes anyone can train their brain to see the world through rose-coloured glasses. “Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies,” she said.

Intrigued, over the last fortnight I trialled three of the most popular tactics to see if they could pluck me from my crotchety mindset. Was it too late to end the habit of a lifetime and stop being such a miserable old sod?

Step 1: Become a daydream believer

A bunch of studies reveal that simply imagining your dream future can crank up your levels of optimism. The idea is a bit like a Rocky boot-camp for misanthropes. Effectively, you’re training your positivity muscles and greasing the groove for your mind to follow a sunnier path.

I have to be honest. All this “believe-and-you’ll-achieve” stuff reeks of self-help bullshit to me. But I decide to give it a go on the drive home each day after dropping my oldest off at kindergarten.

I imagine my start-up finally gaining momentum and becoming a global business. I imagine finishing the abandoned car-crash of a novel languishing in a dusty drawer. I imagine completing the renovation that will transform our family home. I imagine my two kids flourishing into happy and solvent young men. I imagine wangling a bit more “alone time” with my wife, learning to surf and Leicester City winning the Champions League…

It might all sound a bit hokey, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable, too. And I realise that so often I do the exact opposite. I’ve got this nasty habit of lying awake at 3am catastrophising about the doomed trajectory of my life. Positive daydreaming is just an inverted flip minus the heart palpitations and pointless regrets.

Step 2: Avoid the company of pessimistic people

Apparently, emotions are contagious. According to data taken from the Framingham Heart Study, having just one sad friend can double your chances of becoming unhappy. This sort of data has given birth to a school of thought that recommends giving pessimists a wide berth lest you become dragged down by their tailspin of gloom.

Logically, this all makes sense to me. But putting it into practice seems callous at best. My issue is that many of my nearest and dearest are not the most happy, shiny people. My mother, for example, has long battled depression and is currently living alone in lockdown in the UK. World-weary fatalism has become her default perspective – she’s not the biggest cheerleader for the wonders of life.

Does her mindset rub off on me on our regular Facetime calls? Possibly a bit. But while this can be slightly draining, at the end of the day, she’s still my mum. I’m hardly going to abandon her just because she’s not the most feel-good company. Instead, I try to jolly her along and raise her spirits.

But what I do try and do instead is bolster my mental equilibrium by hanging out with more upbeat types for balance. I’ve got one mate, in particular, who refuses to take life too seriously and reframes every setback as a temporary blip. Admittedly, he’s slightly delusional and seldom sober. Nevertheless, our weekly catch-up is a guaranteed dopamine top-up session over a couple of schooners. While I refuse to shun all pessimists, I work on cultivating a more balanced social spread overall.

Step 3: Appreciate what you’ve got

Obviously, I can’t be arsed to write a “gratitude journal”. But countless studies reveal the counting your blessings can make you see the world in a happier light so I start to engage in a nightly thought experiment.

Every night as I lie in bed, I try to zero in on the three best things that happened to me that day. Suffice to say, as a beleaguered dad of two these are hardly going to challenge Lewis Hamilton’s Instagram in the glamour and excitement stakes. They’re just little micromoments that illuminate the daily grind. Yesterday, for example, I cooked a banging roast chicken, took my kids to the beach and ended the day with my wife drinking gin and tonics on the deck and almost finishing a crossword.

It wasn’t all domestic bliss, of course. A lot of less good stuff happened too. My toddler got a pea stuck up his nose, I received another fine for speeding… But stopping to focus on the positive bits still seems a worthwhile exercise. Whisper it quietly, but it makes life seem a little bit brighter.

Let’s be honest: I’ve still got a long way to go here. But while these tricks haven’t completely turned my frown upside down, they’ve at least left me with a slightly lop-sided leer. Women and small kids apparently find this new grimace a little alarming. Nevertheless, it’s progress of sorts.

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