randolph_nesse's picture
Research Professor of Life Sciences, Director (2014-2019), Center for Evolution and Medicine, Arizona State University; Author, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings
Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; Coauthor, Why We Get Sick

We Will Find New Ways To Block Pessimism

I am optimistic that we will soon find effective new methods for blocking pessimism. We are well on the way with antidepressants. Side-effects remain a major problem, and some people do not respond, but progress has been rapid.  Findings from neuroscience and genetics will provide the foundation, but the engine that will drive new developments is the huge profit potential from agents that relieve negative emotions. The anxiety and depression drug market already tops 20 billion dollars per year just in the USA.  The promise of profits will yield new agents. They will relieve much suffering. 

I am pessimistic, however, about our ability to use them wisely. Pessimism is not a problem, it is a useful emotional state. When the boat overturns a mile out to sea, optimism about one's ability to swim to shore is deadly.  When a hurricane is approaching, optimism is fine nine times out of ten, then comes Katrina. When deciding whether to invade a foreign country, optimism about receiving a warm welcome can result in a catastrophe that changes the whole course of history for the worse.  

The tendency to think optimism is superior to pessimism is a deep-rooted illusion.  Optimism is useful in propitious situations. Pessimism is useful in dangerous situations.  For the fortunate, life now is vastly safer and more secure than it was, so pessimism is less necessary.  But unintended consequences of blocking pessimism are likely.  Already thousands of employees are subjected to motivational exercises to foster positive thinking.  What will happen when we all can choose to feel positive most of the time?  The world will be better in many ways, and worse in others that are hard to predict.