How to turn pessimism in to a positive

By Alain de Botton

Almost certainly, you’ve been having a bad time at work recently. In a perfect world, work should do so much for us: lend us purpose and a sense of achievement, offer us meaning and comradeship.

But, invariably, something goes wrong: our talents feel like they’re not being recognised, the company seems unfit to sacrifice a life for, the day-to-day tasks are mundane and stressful, and many in management are like grown-up versions of playground bullies. The best way to stay calm and remain an amiable presence in the face of all these difficulties is to give up on the idea that the project will go perfectly; the route to tolerance and patient good humour is to realise that one simply is, where it counts, irredeemably alone.

This sort of pessimism has a bad reputation, but it is one of the kindest and most generous of philosophies. That’s because what often makes us sad and angry isn’t mere disappointment, but a deeper sense that our hopes have not come true and that our lives are unusually bitter – that we have been singled out for particular punishment. Pessimistic ideas suggest otherwise. Life isn’t incidentally miserable, they tell us; it is fundamentally difficult for everyone. It should be quite evident that this can be enormously helpful when dealing with the typical struggles of
a working week.

The greatest part of our suffering, at work and elsewhere, is brought about by our hopes (for health, happiness and success). Therefore, the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to recognise that our griefs are not incidental or passing, but a fundamental aspect of existence that will only get worse.

This might sound depressing, but it is in fact an incredibly liberating realisation. If a crucial presentation goes very badly (we drop our papers everywhere, muddle up some key statistics and call a client by the wrong name), it is very reassuring to realise that disasters such as these are entirely unexceptional. Conflict with our colleagues, embarrassment before our superiors and unexpected roadblocks to a dearly sought promotion are very much routine in life. In the workplace, we would all feel much happier if mediocrity and relative failure were assumed to be the norm.

Unfortunately, we live in an era that is horribly lopsided when looking at the nature of our existence. The possibilities of a pessimistic workplace are unlikely to be understood when, all around, an overly sentimental and cheerful world view is forced on us from the outside. Communications, in particular, is especially guilty of representing life back to us in bright and enthusiastic snapshots, without allowing tones of sadness or disappointment to enter into a message. This can make our bad moods and private annoyances a source of frustration and anxiety. Here, professionals need to understand the authentic, mature message of pessimism in which great art excels.

Across history, the articulation of melancholy attitudes in works of art has provided us with relief from a sense of loneliness and persecution. Among others, Pascal, Keats, Shelley, Schopenhauer and Leonard Cohen have been able to reassure us of the normalcy of our states of sadness. In particular, they have made a case for melancholy, a species of low-level, muted sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a disorder that needs to be cured. The good life is not one immune to grief, but one in which we allow suffering to contribute to our development.

And yet the dominant tone of advertising continues to be cheerful or, its more brittle cousin, cheery – a good mood that tolerates no other. There have only ever been a handful of melancholy ads. This presumes that the best way to please others must be to present ourselves in a vibrant mood. But the central motive of melancholy art is to help us by specifically not trying to cheer us up. It doesn’t attempt to suggest that it doesn’t matter that a parent has died, that one has been made redundant, or that a novel one has been working on for seven years has been rejected.

Businesses could usefully extend their emotional range to learn to meet us in other moods, as there are so many needs we’re more alive to when we acknowledge our sadness. We don’t stop being consumers when we’re down, but we have different priorities. Admission of our despair and the number of moments when we wonder if it can really be worth it are key tools in the process of selling, properly reimagined.

The promoter, no less than the product developer, needs to remember how much of life deserves solemn and mournful states – and how much loyalty we will be ready to offer those who don’t feel aggressively compelled to deny our melancholy. The same is true in our places of work – we desperately need an employer who accepts that it is okay to feel subdued and upset; that our careers and productivity are not dependent on an endless show of optimism and good cheer; and that pessimism can leave us happier than the false show of happiness.

Alain de Botton is an author who covers philosophy, and CEO of The School of Life. Console him: @alaindebotton

Photo courtesy of Mathias Marx

This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2017.

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  1. I can’t help feeling that businesses have a vested interest in making us feel that we are not adequate if we do not show ourselves to be as happy/cheerful/slim/beautiful/trendy, all because we don’t own the particular looks/objects/products they just happen to sell? ‘We are worth it’, some tell us, so why don’t we buy it – if we don’t, it must be because there is a problem with us.

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