Positively Pessimistic

For many pessimists, staying positive is a foreign concept, especially during a worldwide health crisis.


illustration by Kristen Kinzler

Continuously trying to remain positive in stressful times can cause more negativity and stress.

Kristen Kinzler, Junior Class Editor

It’s been weeks since the coronavirus hit the United States, and for every single one of those days, I have tried. I have woken up, given it my best shot, and eventually failed. Every bone in my body just seems to reject the idea.

No matter what I do, I cannot seem to be optimistic or positive.

It’s practically a requirement on the coronavirus survival checklist. Everyone says to wash your hands, social distance, and stay positive.

The first two, no problem. But the whole positivity part? That’s not going nearly as well.

To be fair, I am an inherently glass-half-empty, pessimistic person. It’s very rare that I’m in a situation and automatically see the bright side, and my mind often jumps to the worst-case scenario.

If you merely scratch the surface of the research on pessimism, you’ll hear the alarm calls.  It may lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, substance abuse, and a swarm of other health problems. Negative thinking may even affect our productivity at school and at work.  Advice columns thus abound online, aimed at teaching us how to be less pessimistic and how to help a pessimistic friend.

But I’m not entirely convinced.  Despite all of the warnings, I haven’t found that pessimism makes me miserable or that it makes anyone else’s life any harder.

Actually, contrary to my not-so-sunny outlook, I’m pretty happy. I just don’t feel the need to find the positive in every aspect of my life. I believe that some events in life will inevitably disappoint, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise. I’m perfectly willing to accept disappointment because I know that other things in life will be better. It’s an oddly compartmentalized balance that, if anything, has simply given me a greater appreciation for the parts of my life that are truly good.

But when the entire world comes to a halt because of a pandemic— when school is canceled, businesses are closed, sports are gone— a lot of those good aspects are put on hold, as well.

Suddenly, it’s as if there isn’t much left to counteract the bad, and I’m staring down this dark tunnel of isolation and uncertainty, and my carefully constructed balance is unraveled.

So, I’ve quickly come to understand why so many people are pushing others to stay positive. I just have no idea how to do so.

Now is the time in every pessimist’s life when they might need some positivity, and it’s also the worst time to learn how to be optimistic.”

Studies show that the United States is considered to be the most pessimistic country in the world. According to a 2012 survey conducted in more than twenty countries, 22% percent of Americans think that the world will end in their lifetime, compared to the 15% international average.

Needless to say, I don’t believe the apocalypse is nigh, but clearly I’m not alone in my pessimism — which means I’m also not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the task of trying to find contentment in isolation. Truly, now is the time in every pessimist’s life when they might need some positivity, but it’s also the worst time to learn how to be optimistic. The world has slowed down, and very few things feel purely uplifting. The pandemic has cast a shadow on almost everything we do.

If I couldn’t find a silver lining when something inconvenient happened in my normal, everyday life, how am I supposed to be okay with anything that’s happening right now? How do I “stay positive” during a crisis when I was never very positive in the first place?

Forcing optimism, and continuing to fail at it, can backfire, leading to more negativity and guilt. In the past week alone, I’ve felt like a horrible person for being upset about being stuck in the house, despite the fact that I live in a safe and healthy environment with a loving family — something many kids in our country don’t have. My family is financially stable, I’m healthy, and I attend a school that has online learning opportunities, so it’s hard to see how complaining about my slight discomfort seems anything other than morally wrong.

But while we should acknowledge our privileges and appreciate them, feeling a little down doesn’t make us ungrateful. It makes us human. Maybe that’s why, just for a little while, we should all calm down, drop the optimistic act, and be authentic with each other.

If you’re naturally an optimist, while I have no idea how you do it, that’s great. But if you’re someone who struggles with finding the bright side, that’s okay, too. It’s normal not to see a bright side right now. It’s normal to be a little pessimistic, and no matter how fortunate you feel about your individual situation or how many loved ones you are surrounded by, it’s not something to feel guilty about. Going against your nature isn’t going to make you feel better, so if being positive feels like a stretch, stop striving for it.

Currently, positivity may feel just about impossible, but hope has never been more vital. ”

However, there is a difference between positivity and hope. Positivity means finding the good in the present moment, no matter the circumstances, but hope is the act of looking towards the future and knowing it will eventually be good again. Currently, positivity may feel just about impossible, but hope has never been more vital. 

The ongoing toll of COVID-19 is horrific, and a return to our old lives does not feel especially close. But we can see the seeds of hope all around us. There is something undeniably magical in the kindness people are showing their neighbors through such a dark time. Despite the horror, there is still good.

This good, however, isn’t a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. It has always been there, and it always will be. I don’t consider those acts to be a silver lining, but rather a small piece of hope that is present in every moment, whether we recognize it or not. 

It’s a hope that represents a bright future after all of this is over.

That’s the key to surviving any situation as a pessimist, including the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t have to pretend that our current situation is beneficial or that it has some secret valuable lesson that will reveal itself in time. We don’t need to change who we are in order to solve the problem.  All we need to know is that, despite whatever our fears may be telling us, it won’t last forever.

So, while we all look to take care of our unique circumstances, not every moment needs to be counteracted with optimism, and not every day has to be the greatest. Right now, it’s okay to simply acknowledge that the best days are yet to come.