Is there anything we worship as much as optimism? In America, the land of the perennially positive, we tend to be hopeful: we believe— sometimes beyond reason— that anything is possible. Unhappy in love? We can find our soul mate. Despise our jobs? We can quit and start our own business. Too poor? We can work hard and be as rich as the wealthiest man on Wall Street.
But the problem with being too optimistic is it inevitably leads to high expectations and, thus, disappointment. Take the romantic arena for example. Most of us have ridiculously high expectations of our partners: we expect them to understand us in every way, to make us laugh, to share our passion for The Great Gatsby and French new wave. When our otherwise loving, supportive partner says just the wrong thing or does something thoughtless or inconsiderate (which he invariably will….after all, he’s a human being), we become bitter and despondent. This isn’t how love is supposed to be. Our lover is supposed to decipher the secret language of our souls and always know the exact right thing to say— he’s not supposed to eat our last chocolate chip cookie or note that the waitress’s breasts are quite big. Our lover is supposed to share our every intellectual interest— he’s not supposed to like football and video games.
And therein lies the problem: because we have an impossible, idealistic vision of how love is “supposed” to be, we remain perpetually dissatisfied with reality. In his indispensable volume A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, prioritize small pleasures, gain self-knowledge, lengthen our lives, and listen to our boredom, charmingly cynical British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests we’d be happier if we regarded life with more pessimism. The reality is no matter how sweet our partner, he will occasionally say something insensitive or downright stupid. In the same way, no matter how compatible we are as a couple, commonality will not extend indefinitely: though we might share a fondness for Freddie Mercury, we might passionately disagree about which is better, heavy death metal or indie. As Sylvia Plath once said, two partners are more of a Venn diagram: two circles that have overlapping but ultimately independent identities.
In one of the book’s most consoling chapters “Getting Expectations Right,” Botton introduces us to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto’s 80/20 rule. In 1905, Pareto made a startling discovery: 20% of the pea pods in his garden were responsible for yielding 80% of the peas. Interestingly, this principle was also true in economic productivity: in Italy, 20% of citizens generated 80% of the wealth. Pareto later found this was also true of other country’s economies. The Pareto distribution, or 80/20 rule, states that “80% of effects will come from 20% of the causes.” For example, 80% of a business’s revenue will come from 20% of its clients; 80% of a record company’s profits will come from 20% of its artists, etc.
Though we usually see the 80/20 rule in economics, Botton argues it’s equally applicable to our day-to-day lives. “80% of positive elements can be traced back to 20% of causes,” he writes, “or to put it more negatively, 80% of all inputs are likely to be partly or substantially suboptimal.” In other words, most of the time— indeed, more than half of the time— our lives will be less than ideal.
Rather than imagine we’ll always be cheerful and content, we should expect to endure dark seasons of depression, go through difficult periods where we seriously question all our life choices, feel hopelessly behind our more accomplished college friends, get in petty squabbles with our husbands, lose our car keys, and get lost on the way to our destination. It might seem bleak to anticipate that the worst will happen; however, if we adopt some of the gloominess of the pessimist, when life doesn’t go as planned— we lose all our life savings in the stock market, we get divorced, we get our dream job only to realize we hate it— we won’t become so bitter with disappointment.
Father of psychology Willam James had a simple formula for happiness: happiness = reality meeting our expectations. If we want to be content, Botton suggests, we only have two options: change reality or change expectations. Because it’s futile to change the facts of our existence, we have no choice but to lower our expectations.
Instead of hold an idealistic view of life, we should remember the pillars of the pessimist’s philosophy:
1. life generally goes wrong
2. most sex will not be the stuff of our filthy, pornographic fantasies— it will be unimaginative, awkward, and boring
3. despite our desperate desire for connection, most social interaction will leave us feeling misunderstood and even more lonely
4. the people we love most will often be the most maddening
5. the holidays are never Hallmark cards of poinsettias and sugar cookies— most often, they’re hellish affairs of stress and screaming
6. New Year’s Eve can only ever be one thing: disenchanting
7. most of our work will involve meaningless tasks and pointless meetings
8. most days will be uneventful and uninteresting
9. it’s normal for life to be defined by anguish and anxiety
When we accept that 80% of life doesn’t go as planned, we can more deeply appreciate the other 20%. The days when are husbands notice our new haircut, when our children make it through an afternoon without shoving and screaming, when we discuss a normally contentious topic calmly and rationally without resorting to our normal unhealthy patterns of blaming and stonewalling, when a family dinner doesn’t devolve into passive-aggressive poking and name-calling, when we make it to work on time, when we feel our work has purpose and meaning: these are the exception— not the rule of living. Because so much of life is exasperation and misery, we should cherish those uncommon moments when things run smoothly. A More Exciting Life reminds us there is great wisdom in seeing the glass half empty.
3 thoughts on “Alain de Botton on Why We Should Be More Pessimistic”
I watched that talk, it’s very clever. I think it’s true that disappointed expectations are responsible for a lot of discontent, and if we have fewer and lower expectations we’re probably happier.