18 February 2008

Call Me a Pessimist…

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:19 pm

This isn’t really a post, but rather a copy of correspondence. For those of you who have been following along with the comments on the Le Ballon Rouge post, I’ve been trying to figure out whether there’s any room for me as a psychological practitioner among high school students. I attended a presentation by Terry, the local school board’s resource person for “gifted” students, then went to a parents’ group she facilitates that focuses on the Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). Among the handouts was a short essay based on Martin Seligman’s idea of “learned optimism.” Seligman is regarded as the guiding light behind the widespread enthusiasm for positive psychology. I won’t be attending any more of the meetings, but I thought I’d throw my two cents’ worth by writing a fairly non-controversial, non-cynical response and emailing it to everyone in the parents’ group. I had a couple of responses from Terry but nothing from anyone else. Here’s the correspondence. Call me a pessimist, but I’m thinking I’m not likely to get many referrals from her or the SENG group.

* * *

Dear SENG members,

I enjoyed participating in the gifted parents’ meeting Wednesday night. Unfortunately I can’t make any more of the meetings due to family scheduling conflicts. However I wanted to comment on one of the handouts, called “Optimal Development and Performance: The Role of Explanatory Style.” Maureen Neihart, the author of this paper, makes a case for learning to become more optimistic:

“Since studies indicate that pessimists are less resilient, more depressed, and achieve less in their lifetimes than do optimists, it is important that we shape and maintain an optimistic style. We can promote emotional health, social competence, and high achievement in our children by teaching them to think positively about day-to-day events in their lives.”

Not to be a wet blanket or anything (lol), but Neihart doesn’t mention the research demonstrating that people already tend to be overly optimistic. In many areas of our lives we underestimate risks and overestimate the likelihood of success. People expect to live longer than average, underestimate their likelihood of divorce, overestimate prospects for career success, and so on. Even Martin Seligman, the guru of learned optimism, acknowledges that optimists are less realistic than pessimists. Now I don’t doubt that optimists are more fun to be around and that they’re more likely to build enthusiasm for their projects. On the other hand, would the USA have gone to war in Iraq if the American politicians and public had been a little more pessimistic and spent more time looking at the odds of success and the costs of engagement?

Neihart observes that pessimists tend to overemphasize the permanence and pervasiveness of negative events: everything is going wrong and it’s never going to change. Being somewhat of a pessimist myself, I have to admit that this sort of global negative assessment of the world isn’t realistic: everything doesn’t really suck all the time. However, I still think it and say it sometimes. Why? I suspect it’s because I’m aware that something is wrong that’s being brushed under the rug. Others aren’t taking my obstacles and disappointments seriously enough — maybe I’m not even taking them seriously enough. So how do I call more attention to these problems? I dramatize their permanence and pervasiveness. See how big this problem is? NOW will you pay attention?!

If my daughter tells me about how everything is terrible, she’s a worthless person, etc., my first reaction is to downplay her problem: it’s not that bad, it’s not that big a deal, you’ll get over it, etc. This might be a realistic response, but it also surely minimizes or even trivializes her subjective experience, as Sheard acknowledges on the last page of her paper. If my kid is making such outlandishly grand pessimistic statements, she must want to call my attention to something that’s bugging her. I have a sense that it would be better to acknowledge just how sucky this thing is first, and hear all about it. I might not even have to go through some sort of reality test with her after that, since mostly what she wants is to be heard. And I don’t want to minimize what’s bugging her even after the storm has calmed down: after all, we’re biased toward being too optimistic.

Americans are overly optimistic, but there’s still been a huge increase in depression over the last generation — what’s up with that? But that’s a whole nother topic. Thanks for your forebearance with my long-windedness. Thanks again for letting me come to the group.

John Doyle (parent of Fairview 9th grader)
* * *

(To whole group)

It’s great to have your thoughts about the article, John. A dialogue about this, and other articles, helps all of us understand our own personal beliefs more fully.

I have used Seligman’s attribution questionnaire with my high school TAG students for a few years now, and it always provokes an interesting discussion about pessimism, optimism, realism, choice, personality, genetics, environment, the ability to change, and much much more. Seligman does mention that it’s quite probable that pessimists are more likely to be realists, than are optimists. However, it’s hard to convince optimists that they need to become more pessimistic in the hopes that it might make them more realistic.
My students that have tested highly on the optimist scale are without a doubt happier, more content individuals. The students that have tested highly on the pessimist scale frequently want suggestions on how to change their outlook. They recognize themselves as “the glass is half empty” people, and many don’t like that about themselves. I had a student announce to the group one day, “I’ve been critical and frustrated a lot and not particularly nice to a lot of people, and I just want to make an announcement that I am going to try to be less critical and pessimistic in the next few weeks.” He made a real effort, and he succeeded. In fact, at the end of 3 weeks, the students spontaneously gave him a round of applause when he walked into the room because he had been much more pleasant to be around. He smiled for the first time in months.
So… I believe it is much harder to convince our children/students that becoming more optimistic is a negative thing. For this young man he gained higher social satisfaction and higher personal satisfaction. It’s been a year now since his experiment, and being more positive just comes more naturally to him. In fact, it helped him get through a very disabling medical condition he had to overcome. He is, without a doubt, happier with his “new” image.
Of course, being overly “anything” is not necessarily the best way to be. Being “overly optimistic” might be similar to sticking one’s head in the sand. Not a good thing. Being “overly pessimistic” is also not the best way to be. Can we agree that, on a continuum, there might be an ideal range to fall under, and it’s not near any extreme?
If your daughter tells you how bad life sucks and she is miserable about something, the right approach is not to deny what she’s feeling, you’re right. First we need to validate our children’s feelings, then talk about options. I just had an episode with my 16 year old daughter last night where the best response to her frustrations about gymnastics was to simply sit next to her on the couch, hold her in my arms, and let her cry. When she was feeling better we discussed her possible options for the situation. However, if I had downplayed the problem and told her to “suck it up, that’s what athletes do” and that she didn’t have anything to cry about, she would feel that I “didn’t understand.”
We have to listen not only the words they are saying, but to the emotions they’re displaying, as well. That’s how we know how important something is to them. In this way, we’re not trivializing anything, we’re being realistic, AND we’re offering to help them brainstorm some ways to make the situation better. That’s respecting them, and the situation, and trying to help them reach a resolution.
By the way, I don’t agree that Americans are overly optimistic. In The Optimistic Child, Seligman talks in depth about his theory of why there are so many more depressed people now, compared to before the 1960’s. It’s an interesting theory. I’d be curious to know what you think if you get a chance to read it too.
Thanks for your ideas, John. Reflection is always highly valuable for a discussion group. Anybody else out there who wants to throw in their two cents worth?


* * *

(To whole group)

Thanks Terry for your thoughtful reply to my comments about optimism, and mostly I agree with what you said. I hope I haven’t put myself in the unenviable position of having to defend pessimism. I would surely fail to be persuasive, thereby reinforcing my own pessimism about being able to change people’s opinions.

You mentioned Seligman’s The Optimistic Child — the description on Amazon says this:

“Seligman discounts prevalent theory that children who are encouraged by others to feel good about themselves will do well. Instead, he proposes that self-esteem comes from mastering challenges, overcoming frustration and experiencing individual achievement.”

That sounds right. A few months ago I read the summary of an international study looking at math achievement test results and students’ confidence in their mathematical ability. Ironically, those countries whose kids had the HIGHEST average achievement scores also had the LOWEST math self-confidence scores. Maybe excessive self-confidence can get in the way of working toward mastery. Incidentally, I’ve seen some evidence contradicting the contention that adolescents are experiencing a big rise in depression compared to prior generations. Apparently depression is more prevalent in adolescence, then tends to decline with age. So researchers who look at a cross-section of the population and see a lot of teen depression might infer a society-wide change that’s more a life-stage thing. It’s also the case that depression is more likely to be diagnosed now that antidepressant medications are on the market.

Yesterday I came across an endorsement of sorts for pessimism [note to ktismatics readers — thanks to Gerry Canavan at Culture Monkey for links to this and other essays by and about Dick]:

“The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

“The power of spurious realities battering at us today—these deliberately manufactured fakes never penetrate to the heart of true human beings. I watch the children watching TV and at first I am afraid of what they are being taught, and then I realize, They can’t be corrupted or destroyed. They watch, they listen, they understand, and, then, where and when it is necessary, they reject. There is something enormously powerful in a child’s ability to withstand the fraudulent. A child has the clearest eye, the steadiest hand. The hucksters, the promoters, are appealing for the allegiance of these small people in vain. True, the cereal companies may be able to market huge quantities of junk breakfasts; the hamburger and hot dog chains may sell endless numbers of unreal fast-food items to the children, but the deep heart beats firmly, unreached and unreasoned with. A child of today can detect a lie quicker than the wisest adult of two decades ago. When I want to know what is true, I ask my children. They do not ask me; I turn to them.”

This quote is excerpted a 1978 essay entitled “How to Build a Universe that Won’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” written by Philip K. Dick. Dick was probably schizophrenic and certainly a substance abuser; when you read his science fiction you immerse yourself in a variety of unstable universes where pessimism is the only realistic response. Would I look to Philip Dick as a role model for my child? He probably wasn’t a very happy man, and he wasn’t really a great writer; still, he could see things that others can’t. Hmm, seeing things that others can’t… sounds like hallucination, a symptom of psychosis. But Dick could also show these paranoiac and distorted universes to his readers. Some people can probably never see what Dick shows them — they might be more well-balanced, more optimistic, more successful, less prone to depression. But people who can see often regard Dick as someone who looks behind the cheerful facade of everyday society to some darker truths. I suspect that Philip Dick is one of the few writers high school boys will read without it being assigned by a teacher.

I think about the assigned readings in my daughter’s freshman English class — 1984 by George Orwell, poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath — and I ask her: would you say Orwell is an optimist or a pessimist? Pessimist, she says without hesitation. Poe? Plath? The same. I suspect all these pessimistic writers, Dick included, would have fit into the “gifted” category. Being way out on the right tail of the statistical distribution means a kid can excel where others must struggle to attain mediocrity — this should instill optimism and self-confidence. But sometimes being gifted means being able to see things most other people can’t see. If this kind of gifted kid tries to show others what s/he sees, s/he is liable to meet with outright rejection or, perhaps more likely, blank stares. The easier, happier path might be to forget these troubling visions and join the rest of the world. If, though, the kid can hang onto these visions and maybe get one or two others to see them too, s/he might be able to do something exceptional with his/her gift without having to sink into the deeply pessimistic funk that probably plagued people like Dick, Poe and Plath.


* * *

(To me personally)

This quote, from your response, is the reason I speak to parents about encouraging their children to take healthy risks. It is from taking risks and accepting challenges that true growth occurs. In fact, decades ago, millions of dollars was poured into schools in California to raise the students’ self esteem. Teachers were trained to praise their students without abandon. The study backfired when self esteem actually dropped, rather than increased. It was then that Seligman wrote this quote:

“Seligman discounts prevalent theory that children who are encouraged by others to feel good about themselves will do well. Instead, he proposes that self-esteem comes from mastering challenges, overcoming frustration and experiencing individual achievement.”
While I agree that this following quote is true in cases of ethics and morality, I do not agree that it should be encouraged when applied to academia or social circumstances:

“The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance.”

Looks like no one else in the SENG group was willing to take the time (or the risk) to become a part of this conversation! Good luck with your future pursuits, and in the meantime, enjoy a couple of extra days with your daughter.



  1. Yeah, I think you’ve been, quietly and unanimously, kicked out of the book club. Terry seems like a real conversational escape artist.


    Comment by seyfried — 18 February 2008 @ 9:15 pm

  2. Great men are always of a nature originally melancholy

    – Aristotle


    Comment by Erdman — 19 February 2008 @ 6:44 am

  3. I find there’s a fine line between optimism and masochism: you go back again in hopes of reaching a breakthrough, while the other person now regards your insistence on returning even after rejection as an opportunity to punish you for your persistence. Anyhow, I did send a follow-up email to Terry’s last kiss-off, trying to get her to clarify her comment that “While I agree that this following quote (from Dick) is true in cases of ethics and morality, I do not agree that it should be encouraged when applied to academia or social circumstances”:

    “I don’t understand what you mean by your last remark. Are you suggesting that personal moral resistance is admirable, but personal resistance to societal evils is not? Would then you have recommended that the characters in 1984 go along with the social program as long as they kept their own noses clean? When my daughter’s English teacher asked the students if they could see any connection between 1984 and present-day America, some kids said yes while others said no. Interesting.”

    To which Terry replied:

    By “social” I meant making attempts at forming new relationships. This is something that many of my students struggle with. They have a hard time making friends because they don’t open themselves up to forming new friendships.

    It was hard for me to parse this response, but I think what she means by “social” is that gifted kids should reject their tendency say “no” to offers of friendship. I don’t think that’s quite what Dick was talking about, but I’m done now.

    I went onto the SENG website, where they have various articles posted online. One is called “Adolescence and gifted: addressing existential dread.” The author says she read Kierkegaard in grad school and couldn’t relate. “I felt my own angst was the result of developmental emotional impoverishment and could be traced directly to a dysfunctional family system.” So maybe if Kierkegaard’s parents had been nicer he wouldn’t have written all that depressing stuff. Maybe if he’d joined the Boy Scouts as a kid, or maybe a fraternity in college… Maybe if Aristotle had just pepped up a little he wouldn’t have felt the pathological need to be great.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 February 2008 @ 10:15 am

  4. ““I felt my own angst was the result of developmental emotional impoverishment and could be traced directly to a dysfunctional family system.””

    To which we say, so what? “Alright, fine, little Kiekegaard take some soma, and shut the f*ck up.”


    Comment by seyfried — 19 February 2008 @ 12:01 pm

  5. Here’s a relevant link from a hot new blog — I’m sure this guy has a book contract by now. I sent the link to my gifted resource person Terry — I suspect she’ll say she loved it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 1:53 pm

  6. No, I was wrong — she didn’t respond. I know she’s seen it because I sent a second email at the same time, referring her to a book saying that the epidemic in depression is a result of overdiagnosis. She commented on the book but not on the blog link about giftedness — it must have ticked her off.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  7. Correspondence continues haphazardly with Terry the gifted lady. First I linked her to this book saying that depression is overdiagnosed, then to this meta-analysis demonstrating that antidepressant medications are no more effective than placebo for mild to moderate depression. So I gave her a sort of Lacan-light interpretation of depression-as-symptom:

    Don’t get me wrong — I believe people get depressed and unduly pessimistic. Hell, I do it too. But I believe it’s like making the extreme pessimistic statement that everything sucks all the time — there is some part of you that’s not being heard, so it makes itself known to you through whatever means it has available: exaggeration, intrusive thoughts, unhappiness, etc. Depression is an emotional objection to something you’re not acknowledging about yourself and your place in the world. Maybe you’re actively trying to deny it, maybe you haven’t consciously recognized it yet. Depression is a way to get your attention. Medication and sometimes even rational-emotive therapy are ways of shutting your unconscious up and pushing it back underground. Instead you need to let that incoherent part of yourself be heard, and you need to understand what it’s saying. Some of your thoughts and feelings are irrational — that’s because they don’t know how to express themselves rationally. No need to deny their authenticity; it’s better to help them learn how to speak.

    Here’s Terry’s reply:

    Interesting article… makes a lot of sense. John, it would be great to have you at our SENG group meeting when we talk about depression. It would be helpful to have you share your thoughts about depression, from a therapist’s perspective. Look at your calendar. Our last meeting is on Thursday, March 20 from 7-8:30. We’ll have a little potluck, talk about signs and causes of depression for about 30 minutes, and debrief about what we’ll have covered over the past 7 weeks. Think about it. I believe that your ideas would really make the parents think, and dig deeper. That’s not a bad place to go, when you’re in a safe place.

    Now this isn’t an entirely evil response — a less pessimistic person might call it a gracious invitation. But I already told her I can’t make Thursday nights throughout the duration of her parents’ meetings. Also, this last class sounds like it’s already got a heavy agenda without me sticking my head in there as an outsider. So I’m inclined to decline her invitation. I’d propose sending an email to the group, but last time that didn’t generate any response so that’s probably futile as well.

    It seems to me I have to get upstream from depression to a framing context that’s more compatible with my ktismatic agenda than with the positive-mental-attitude, success-oriented instrumental rationality that suffuses the SENG approach. What interests me is the rhizomatic trajectory of passion –> agency –> calling by which someone transforms a “gift” into something interesting and excellent launched into the world. I don’t think a parents’ group is the place for this to happen, since they seem interested primarily in aiming and controlling their kids than in releasing them. Now it might be good if I could steer some depressed kids my way rather than to a rational-emotive psychological technician, but I’m really not that interested in kids depressed about breaking up with their girlfriends and so on. It’s “theory and practice of creation” that interests me. Depression resulting from a the short-circuiting of the process of creation — indifference to passion, difficulty of achieving individuation and subjectivity, lack of response from the Other — is where I’d like to intervene.

    So maybe I should propose getting together with Terry for coffee and talking about how she thinks I can get myself into the game.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2008 @ 4:09 am

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