Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Bewitched and Ben Franklin

“Defensive pessimism” – that sounds about the right description of my philosophy.

I know some people who appear to be unrelentingly positive, seeing the 3/4s empty glass as 1/4 full. I appreciate those people, as long as they don’t seem to be wearing rose-colored glasses.

I was commenting on someone’s blog – more on that anon – and I was reminded of one of those peculiar childhood memories that, I believe, color my view of the world to this day.

It was an episode of the 1960s television program Bewitched, starring Elizabeth Montgomery.

I recall very little about the particulars, actually. Couldn’t tell you which Darrin was in it, Dick York or Dick Sargent. We had a black and white TV, so I couldn’t tell you if it was broadcast in color. Don’t even particularly remember the plot.

I DO know, though, that Benjamin Franklin appeared, for some reason. His character was offering up all sorts of aphorisms. One was that he always going through life expecting negative outcomes so that when something positive happened, he would be pleasantly surprised. It was a punchline that was supposed to be funny – the canned laughter told me that – but, to me, it made SENSE. (The exact quote from the show, according to here: “I’m more optimistic than pessimistic. Or perhaps I’m an optimistic pessimist — prepare for the worst, but when the very worst doesn’t happen, I’m pleasantly surprised.”)

Last month, in her V is for Visualization post, Meryl at Departing the Text wrote:

Studies suggest…that optimistic affirmations designed to lift one’s mood, often achieve the opposite effect.

…The Power of Negative Thinking essayist, Oliver Burkeman suggests that there is an alternative approach to help us find that sometimes elusive (holiday) cheer: “…both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier.”

According to Burkeman, Albert Ellis (a New York psychotherapist) rediscovered this key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: “the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.”

Stoics called this worst-case scenario therapy “the premeditation of evils” and they believed that doing this would remove the anxiety “THE FUTURE” relayed. According to Burkeman, modern psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy which she terms “defensive pessimism.”

Burkeman further posits that: “The ultimate value of the ‘negative path’ may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by the craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.”

“Defensive pessimism” – that sounds about the right description of my philosophy. On the other hand, I think that worrying is highly overrated.

This begs the question: was Ben Franklin portrayed accurately in a sitcom a half-century ago? This quote is attributed to him, according to several sources: “I’d rather be a pessimist because then I can only be pleasantly surprised.” So, kinda sorta, yeah.