Stop Smiling! Pessimists Live Longer (Or Maybe It Just Feels Like It)

Barbara Ehrenreich by David Shankbone, New Yor...
Author Barbara Ehrenreich, looking a little glum.Image via Wikipedia

In her latest book, which got fairly well savaged by The New York Times yesterday, prolific author Barbara Ehrenreich argues against the prevailing American culture of smiley-faced optimism, urging readers instead toward “vigilant realism.”

Her larger point — Americans have been hornswoggled into really believing they stand a good shot at their pursuit of happiness, even with six people now competing for every available job.

As someone who moved to the U.S. from Canada, from a smaller, more dour crowd into a sea of the perpetually, somewhat exhaustingly upbeat,  I’ve always found this relentless optimism a little puzzling. Up north, we don’t expect everything to be OK and much of Canadian culture supports this somewhat fatalistic point of view: it’s a lot harder to sue someone, awards are smaller and if you lose your case, you’ll probably pay court costs. So you might be bitterly disappointed that your prom date ditched you at the last minute — to name one American lawsuit that struck me as extremely bizarre — but you can’t haul their ass into court to make yourself feel better.

“Suck it up” might be our real motto instead of the Latin, literal “Ad Mare Usque Ad Mare” (From Sea to Sea, which is geographically accurate, if a little dull) Long, dark, bitterly cold winters, lower salaries and higher taxes remind Canadians that life isn’t all skittles and beer, nor are we raised to expect it to be. So, if a business person is sent to prison, say for malfeasance, they don’t really think they’ll come roaring back to the wide-open embrace of Wall Street.

Call us sourpusses, but sometimes I prefer that more measured outlook — Ehrenreich’s book cites a study suggesting a darker worldview is healthier long-term than optimism because pessimists take fewer risks and are less likely to fall into depression when things don’t work out.

Maybe it’s time to make Eeyore your mascot instead.

4 thoughts on “Stop Smiling! Pessimists Live Longer (Or Maybe It Just Feels Like It)

  1. Todd Essig

    Being the pessimist I am I’m sure this comment won’t make a difference, but “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” is from the Declaration of Indepedence, an aspiriational phrase from an aspirational document. If it were constitutionally guaranteed our courts would be an even bigger mess than they are right now!

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    That’s a deeply embarrassing error. Thank you.

    The larger point, though, is the notion you somehow deserve to be happy which really is very American. I’m not sure any other countries think this way, do they?

    1. Todd Essig

      Interesting, I was 99% sure of the Declaration but wanted to erase that 1% so I turned to that unimpeachable source that is never wrong — Wikipedia! It ended up being interesting. Japan of al places has pursuit of happiness in their constitution:

      “Liberty: The constitution asserts the right of the people “to be respected as individuals” and, subject to “the public welfare”, to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Article 13).”

      Go figure …

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