We live in a pessimistic society

Alain de Botton: "There is power in pessimism"

If we want to live a happy life, we shouldn't be overly optimistic - said the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton

A friend calls. He is depressed, his view of the future: shrouded in worry, pitch black. How do we react? We usually try to use a few supposedly encouraging phrases: "The year has only just begun, everything will be fine!" Or: "Spring is just around the corner!" Or: "Just think of the beautiful things in life!"

It seems to me the most hopeless way of trying to cheer someone up. It only leads this person deeper into despair. In my opinion, one of the most comforting sentences is: "Everything is absolutely terrible." So I would rather come to this friend with the ancient philosopher Seneca, who said, "What need is there to weep over parts of life? As a whole, it calls for tears."

Or with Arthur Schopenhauer, the thinker of the 19th century: "It's bad today and is getting worse every day - until the worst comes." Or with Nicolas Chamford, French moralist, 18th century: "A man should swallow a toad every morning to make sure that he does not encounter anything more repulsive on the day ahead."

What use is the cranked tone of the optimists in the depressing hours of life? Nothing. On the contrary: it is the thoughts of the pessimists that lift us up. This statement may come as a surprise, as pessimism is generally regarded as an unattractive view of life.

In truth, however, the pessimists point the way to more equanimity. Because they free us from exaggerated expectations. Of expectations that will inevitably be disappointed.

The curse of optimism

The philosopher Seneca quoted above wrote a book "On Anger". He concluded that all of the anger and frustration in the world comes from optimism. More precisely: from the exaggerated claims that an optimistic attitude to life brings with it.

Why don't people in England get annoyed about rainy days? Because they didn't expect anything else. And why do we get annoyed when the keys have already disappeared or when our car is stuck in a traffic jam? Because, strangely enough, we firmly believe in a world in which the keys are always in their place and the streets are free of traffic.

Our sense of what the norm is or should be seems extremely distorted to me. The crisis, also the political crisis, the economic crisis: it is the normal state, it always has been. Only optimists believe that there is something bad about a crisis. Especially in our days when we live in an era of radical optimism, there is a level of pessimism

Since the early 19th century, Western societies have embraced the bourgeois, knowledge-based worldview. The belief in progress and the blessing of technology merged in her with the conviction that every human problem can be solved.

Everything used to be worse - that's a good thing!

This is a comparatively new phenomenon. The Judeo-Christian worldview that shapes us, like the Greco-Roman thought of antiquity, has always emphasized the essentially tragic, deeply inadequate nature of man. The wisdom of Buddhism also teaches us: Nothing can be perfect. For most of its existence, mankind has always reckoned with the worst.

There are above all two foundations on which the hopes of great happiness rest within bourgeois ideology: Fulfillment in love. And fulfillment in work. We struggle with these promises every day. Because with the optimistic assurance that each of us can realize himself in them, a mental cruelty is connected: What if not?

Satisfaction can be found in love as well as in work. But it is usually not permanent. It is rather the exception, a condition, precious and rare. But if this exceptional situation is transfigured to the normal state, then our failure in it appears as culpable failure. And not as what it actually is: an aspect of our being.

The bourgeois optimism takes the catastrophe its natural place in human everyday life. And it robs us of the possibility of collective consolation in the face of our fragile marriages, our unfulfilled professional ambitions. Instead, it condemns the disappointed individual to feelings of lonely shame.

We live in a world full of exaggerated hopes

It is revealed in the never-ending flood of advice books, along the lines of "don't worry, live!" or "Make more of your options!" A society that constantly forces its members to realize that they can achieve anything inevitably becomes a society of the unhappy, the frustrated, the envious.

To a society where far too many people assume that something is going dramatically wrong in their life. And yet the optimists firmly believe that they are the maker of their happiness - and consequently take their failure very personally. In societies where this belief is widespread, the suicide rate is also high.

A pessimistic look as a recipe for success

Keeping a skeptical eye on the problems, including failure as a possibility from the outset, that is a recipe for success. For example, when dealing with major scientific questions. Everyone can see that deciphering the human genome was an enormously complicated undertaking.

And there is no question that developing a self-driving car suitable for everyday use is a monstrously difficult undertaking. But we do not panic when faced with such tasks. Because nobody is so optimistic as to believe that they can be solved in no time.

We would be better off if we adopted this pessimistic attitude to life, which dampens excessive expectations and hopes from the outset, into everyday life. Because many relationship conflicts result from a wrong, too optimistic declaration of seemingly banal problems.

If we gave more prestige to the difficulties of living together, we would be less impatient with one another and less nagging. We would show our counterparts sympathy and respect for confronting them. The pessimist remains skeptical whether this will be of any use. Never mind.

Because it is given to him to savor the dark hours, to enjoy his own sadness to the fullest. Because he does not see moments of failure as system errors, but as an enriching facet of life. We should greet such moments with joy. And listen to sad music along with it. I recommend "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" by Elton John.